How to fix our broken democracy

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

"We are the most pro-European generation and have the potential to be the driving force of this project." [francis mckee/Flickr]

Young people are often described as politically apathetic or lazy, but if the current generation of politicians made more effort to include them in decision-making, they would find that young people really do care, argues Johanna Nyman.

Johanna Nyman is the president of the European Youth Forum.

We are suffering from a democratic deficit that has left a gaping chasm between the policies proposed by our leaders and the actual reality that young people face. You may reply that it is not democracy’s fault if young people don’t make their voices heard through the ballot box. But here is the rub: why should young people vote when politics does not respond to their needs; when they see little action to tackle the problems they face, such as unemployment, discrimination and lack of access to their rights? Our leaders need to wake up and realise that if they do not find a new brand of politics that takes into account the needs of all, including the young, we face a future generation alienated from the democratic process, thus seriously risking an effectively defunct system.

The evidence is clear: young people do not participate in traditional politics to the same extent as older generations. One example of this is that in the 2014 European Parliament elections, 72% of 16/18-24 year-olds did not vote, while more than half of the over 65s did. The natural impact of this abstention is that politics and the priorities of politicians do not reflect the concerns of our generation. This in turn creates a vicious circle and undermines the trust of young people in the political institutions and systems they see as pointless and outdated, exacerbating their lack of engagement in these traditional forms of politics.

Some would have us believe that the younger generation is “apathetic” (for which read: lazy) and put the blame squarely at the door of young people for not being interested in politics. This is not the case. We need to look beyond elections and voter turnout when considering young people’s engagement. Take, for example, the cases of young people who devote their time to volunteering for causes in youth organisations, or who take to the streets in protest against injustice. Young people like to contest power from the outside – whether that be as an individual, an organisation or a grassroots movement. Think about the recent “Nuit Debout”, or “up all night”, in France, which started out as a protest against labour reform; or campaigns for marriage equality in Ireland and student protests in Croatia – to name just a few – it is clear that young Europeans do care.

Political activism has changed. It now often (but not solely) takes place online and regularly focuses on one specific cause dear to young people. Just look at recent referendums, which – by focusing on one issue that young people care deeply about (Scottish independence, for example) – bring young people out to vote in huge numbers.

These developments shouldn’t scare politicians, but should instead wake them up. They present a great opportunity to increase the engagement of young people in our democracies. By examining what works well and what triggers young people to engage in other processes, our leaders can learn a lot. And then, building on that and co-creating democracy with us, traditional politics can be transformed into something which fits the 21st century.

The European Youth Forum recently launched a campaign, Youth UP, which aims to be a part of inspiring this transformation. We are getting ideas from young people about how to “youth up” politics and crowdsourcing best practice and examples from all over Europe. And we already have some concrete steps that the EU could take now to tackle this democratic crisis and to create a politics that responds to young people and places them at its core. For example, political literacy can be learned through citizenship education programmes in schools as well as through experience in youth organisations. Young people should have a real seat at the decision-making table, through more opportunities to participate directly in policy-making, where they can have a genuine impact on key political decisions. Other measures, such as lowering the voting age to 16, would help to engage young people in politics from an earlier age, ensure that their engagement lasts and make elections more inclusive.

During the European Youth Event and the YO!Fest, the “youthing up” of politics will be a key topic of debate among the thousands of young Europeans that are coming together in Strasbourg on 20-21 May. There will be a series of activities, including workshops where young people will come up with ideas to make democracy more youth-inclusive; a “Tweet Up” organised with Twitter, which will see the social media activists behind some of the most prominent recent hashtags debate the use of social media with young people.

We are not apathetic, we are not lazy. There is a huge potential in building a more sustainable society if we are included.

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