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Position Paper in Youth Participation in Democratic Processes

01 | Introduction.

The AEGEE (Association des Etats Généraux des Etudiants de l’Europe/European Students’ Forum) was created in 1985 with the vision of creating a unified Europe, based on democracy and a respect for human rights, by bringing together students with different cultural backgrounds. Today, AEGEE is Europe’s largest interdisciplinary youth organisation with 40 countries, 200 cities, and 13,000 friends. The extensive AEGEE network provides the ideal platform for young volunteers to work together on cross­border activities such as international conferences, seminars, exchanges, training courses and case study trips. To combat the challenges young people are currently facing in Europe, AEGEE’s work focuses on four main  areas:  spreading “Europtimism”, improving youth mobility, increasing youth employment and implementing civic education.

As an organization that promotes and supports the involvement and engagement of young people in their communities all around Europe, AEGEE­Europe is concerned about the difficulties that citizens face participating in every stage of the political process. Active political participation of all citizens, and especially of all young people, is the basis for a well functioning European society. Based on the provisions of the article 10.3 of the Treaty of the European Union, which recognizes every citizen’s right to  participate  in  the  democratic  life  of  the  European  Union,  AEGEE­Europe  aims  to  be  a non­governmental organization that empowers well­educated and informed citizens to have an active role in developing political actions and policies.

02| Current practices and challenges for youth participation in democratic processes among the members of AEGEE.

Recent studies have shown that the earlier young people are acquainted and engaged with democratic participation and democratic processes, the higher their level of satisfaction and involvement with their community[1].

In 2014, AEGEE carried out research determining how often its members participate in the democratic process, and to understand the challenges that prevent them from participating efficiently, in order to illustrate the main barriers to real political participation of young people.

In spite of increased interest and use of alternative and innovative ways of participation, voting is still seen as the main instrument of participation for young people participating in the study. Yet, it is important to stress that although they consider voting to be the main participation tool, they do not necessarily believe it is an efficient tool. The results of the European Parliamentary election demonstrate this contradiction perfectly, with only 29%[2] on young people taking part in the elections across the EU.

Another relevant form of participation is through Local, National or Regional Youth Councils, which serve as intermediaries between young people and political representatives. In many countries with an established youth council, the latter has become a respected and efficient tool to advocate for, and represent the need of young people. Our research analysis shows that classic forms of youth participation in democratic processes, such as belonging to a political party, are seen as less efficient than participating in Youth Councils in the current political climate. Youth platforms are not taken into account seriously for policy development, even in the case of youth specific policies. Further, they are not provided with the necessary economic means that would allow them to work professionally to advocate for youth needs.

Another interesting research finding is the affirmation that geographical proximity to an issue results in higher youth engagement. For this reason, participation in democratic processes at the local level is believed to be more efficient than at the international level, where youth believe that they have low impact. One of the factors that drives this situation is the complex processes and the bureaucracy that young people have to face in the EU and at the international level, where decision­making is more complex and less accessible to the average citizen.

The dissatisfaction with politicians, together with the lack of trust towards the governments, is seen as the strongest barrier to participation that young people face; around 40% of the respondents expressed that this is their main obstacle to participation in democracy. Other studies covering European youth, such  as  the  one  published  by  the  London  School  of  Economics  in  2013[3],  have  found  similar percentages. In addition, AEGEE members believe that they do not have a direct influence on politics (63% think that their opinion is not taken into account) but that they are able to lead initiatives (48%). These figures show that youth are capable of having an active role in policy­making and that platforms need to be improved to express their opinions. The feeling changes depending on the area of policy making; the participation potential in decision­making processes on the local level is higher than on the the international level, where it is seen as very difficult.

AEGEE members also expressed their lack of time for participating in a more active way in politics (25%),  which  could  be  related  to  the  fact  that  policy­making is  built  upon  a very passive and institution-­dependent system rather than a more participative one. At this point, the results reflect that young people see lack of information as the biggest problem for not participating more actively in society (14,3%).

03 | Position of AEGEE­Europe

AEGEE strives for a democratic, diverse and borderless Europe, which is socially, economically and politically integrated, and values the participation of young people in its construction and development. Youth participation is understood as the commitment of young people to have an active role in the topics and decisions that affect their lives.

AEGEE believes that young people are major components of the society and are crucial actors in the process of building of their future. Our goal is a system in which young people are allowed to have a direct impact on the decision­making process, sharing the political arena with adults. The tools that are now available due to the Internet and new technologies provide opportunities for all to express more easily their opinions and have a say in the different issues in which they are directly involved to. A sustainable democratic system, with a focus on the integration of minorities, is seen as a feasible scenario only if governing institutions stand for a renewal in the standards of participation strengthen the renewed framework for European cooperation in the youth field (2010­2018) signed by the Council of the European  Union  where  it  is  stated  the  willingness  to  support  “young  people’s  participation  in representative democracy and civil society at all levels and in society.”

In order to achieve a healthy, participative and strong governmental system, a proper education with an emphasis  on  democratic  participation  is  crucial,  as  well  as  introducing  measures  to  avoid  the manipulation of the students. The collaboration of all responsible institutions is needed in order to shape a plural, independent and not politicized teaching curriculum that provides the necessary information for young people about the options they have to influence their society. Working towards this goal will result in empowered youth, with participation competences and open minds that more easily accept collective decisions and strengthen of the sense of community as it is recognized by the provision 5.b of the Recommendation CM/Rec(2010)7 adopted by the Committee of  Ministers of  the Council of Europe when it is stated that “education, especially in the field of citizenship and human rights, is a lifelong process.”

AEGEE also wants to welcome projects, such as the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), as a way of enhancing the participation among Europeans in EU policy­making, which will bring their concerns closer to the EU representatives. Another remarkable example of these projects is the Structured Dialogue as a mechanism to recognise young people as key actors in the development of policies suggested by the trio presidency.

4 | Recommendations for the increase of youth participation in democratic processes.

04.01 |Recommendations for educational centres

AEGEE­Europe recommends that universities, high­schools and other educational centers provide the students’ community an ideal foundation for prejudice­-free discussion and self­organization, particularly through the creation of associations and participation in the councils of the institution. Because young people’s early involvement in the processes is a key element of their belief in democracy, these centers are also called to facilitate a valid platform in which their students can get informed about the political happenings and the way they can participate. AEGEE­Europe wants to promote the implementation of elements that would improve the current democratic system among the students leading to a greater engagement of the society with the political order and the democratic procedures.

First, AEGEE­Europe encourages the educational centers to empower their students’ councils with expertise on topics that concern the institutional organization, and also on speaking and voting rights on all issues with which students are involved. This would ensure a co­-decision process where the voice of students are not only heard but, above all, taken into account.

Second, all democratic processes are based upon the principles of freedom of expression and a right to objective information. On  the one hand, AEGEE­Europe believes that educational centers should promote debates among their students providing them with spaces, facilities and means to do so in an open minded atmosphere without discrimination for  any of  the parties. On  the other hand, these institutions should provide fair information to all their students, offering them the possibility to get involved in any democratic process.

Third, the introduction of a course dedicated to democracy is a step that governments should reinforce by allocating means and human resources that guarantee a quality and independent teaching method. Thus, AEGEE­Europe demands that all the educational centers assure the training of their staff by providing them with specialized knowledge and promoting the introduction of non­formal education through the collaboration with local and international NGOs.

04.02 |Recommendations for policy­makers

AEGEE­Europe believes that one of the most important faces of youth participation in democratic processes is the possibility to take part in the development of the policies that affect them. Policy­ makers at European, national and local levels play an essential role in this.

Currently, there are mechanisms of youth participation that increase the possibility that young people have a say. Nevertheless, these mechanisms have to be developed by integrating a more efficient and continuous form of participation in which youth becomes a main stakeholder.

First, the low representation of minority in the parliaments causes their exclusion from the political debate. This situation decreases their opportunities to influence policy­making processes and have a say in  the development of  policies that directly influence them. AEGEE­Europe, with the purpose of increasing the representation of young people in decision­making forums, recommends that governments lower the voting age to 16 as countries such as Austria have already successfully done.

Second,  AEGEE­Europe  proposes  that  policy  makers  open  new  forms  of  e­participation  and strengthen the existing ones. Online tools are a basic tool for the inclusion of minorities, as they facilitate direct feedback from people of every background in society. E­voting as the flagship action in relation to e­participation is a necessary step that local, national and international governments have to take in order to provide a secure and trustworthy system. AEGEE notes that it will be needed to provide facilities, such as public computers with Internet connection, to allow the voting and other means of participation.

Third,  AEGEE­Europe  understands  that  young  people  should  have  proper  information  about democracy, human rights and how to participate in society. Consequently, it is recommended that political education becomes mandatory at school. However, we stress the importance of properly preparing the professoriate, as it is critical to have teachers with knowledge and experience in the field of civic education or education for democracy, such as work with NGOs and Informal tools.

Fourth,  in  order  to  place  young  people  as  a  main stakeholder in the decision­making process, AEGEE­Europe recommends an increase in the number of  young people involved in the political institutions, including the governmental positions. To achieve this goal, full transparency in the election process and in the administration period is needed.

Fifth, in order to increase participation among young people, AEGEE recommends a reduction in bureaucracy and a simplification of processes. A well structured and user­friendly system that enables participation in all fields of the democratic process is needed in order to encourage people to join all the options they are offered. Specifically, AEGEE demands that governments to improve the remote voting procedures and implement online tools aiming on increasing the current low participation in voting from people living abroad.

Finally, as was mentioned previously, ECI and Structured dialogue are a great chance for citizens to take an active position in policy making. Nevertheless, AEGEE has followed the implementation of these tools and concluded that there is still room for improvement. On the one hand, ECI is presented as a means for deeper citizen involvement in EU decision­making, whereas in reality even when an initiative achieves the criterion of having at least one million signatures, it can be turned down by the European Commission. AEGEE believes that there should be a stronger commitment from the EC to take into account the concerns of citizens. Until now, the only ECI that has prospered is one about water quality where the parliament has launched a consultation on this issue[4]. Moreover, AEGEE recommends that the European Parliament provide support and guidance to ECI proposers with the objective of presenting solid and valuable initiatives, and increasing the options and members to be taken into account.

On the other hand, the Structured Dialogue process is a very important tool for the contribution of young   Europeans   to   the   policy   development.  In   order  to  become  influential  stakeholders, AEGEE­Europe recommends fostering a greater involvement of the decision­makers during the whole process, in order to have real discussions and joint recommendations that could be usable by the EU and National governments. Likewise, AEGEE sees the need for better dissemination of the European Commision recommendations, paired with the Presidency of the EU’s inclusion of a direct method to transform the EC’s recommendations into policy. These measures would transform Structured Dialogue into an efficient tool for participation, which would allow young people to believe in their ability to influence policy. In addition, AEGEE­Europe encourages all national governments to implement a similar process within the sphere of their internal competences.

In conclusion, AEGEE­Europe believes that youth participation is one of the main pillars of a healthy and strong democratic system where there is mutual understanding between people and institutions. Democratic processes are presented as a basic tool for a sustainable society and young people have to be closely linked to them.

[1] Page 9, EACEA 2010/03:  Youth Participation in Democratic Life, Final Report, February 2013, LSE Enterprise Limited. London.

[2] Data from the article from the YFJ about “High youth absenteeism at the European Parliament elections is directly linked to the failure of political parties to address young people and youth issues”.

[3] EACEA 2010/03:  Youth Participation in Democratic Life,  Final Report February 2013, LSE Enterprise Limited. London.

[4] http://ec.europa.eu/environment/consultations/water_drink_en.htm