Youth Participation

Young people’s participation in democratic life has always been at the core of the European Youth Forum’s policy work. Providing a platform for its member organisations to participate in – and influence – policy-making processes is arguably the main reason the European Youth Forum was set up.

From the contribution of young people and youth organisations to participatory policy-making, to advocacy actions to lower the voting age to 16, to European elections campaigns, the focus within the area of participation has varied significantly throughout the years, as young people have also changed the way they engage with politics.

What have always remained as core principles for the Youth Forum, however, is that young people should always be involved in the decision-making processes – from design to implementation to the follow-up and evaluation – on issues that affect them, and that youth organisations have an important role in promoting better and more inclusive youth participation.

  • #YouthUP
  • Citizenship Education
  • European Youth Capital
  • Participation
  • Participatory policy-making
  • Vote at 16
  • Young candidates
  • Youth elections campaigns
  • Youth voter turnouts

The European Youth Forum’s aim is to improve young people’s living conditions, namely by combating all challenges and age-based discrimination they face as a sub-group of the population. Ensuring young people have the spaces and structures to contribute to the formulation, development, implementation, and evaluation of policies that affect them is necessary if we are to achieve that goal.

The European Youth Forum therefore strives for all levels of policy making to include co-decision and co-creation structures where young people and youth organisations have equal power to decide on issues that affect them.  In terms of the ladder of youth participation, this means the top rung of the ladder, in which young people make decisions in partnership with adults.

The European Youth Forum’s focus in this regard has been on the three main institutional structures that it works with: the European Union, the Council of Europe, and the United Nations.

EU Youth Dialogue

The EU Youth Dialogue (previously called the Structured Dialogue) is a way of making young people’s voices heard in European policy-making processes. The process is the result of the White Paper: ‘A New Impetus for European Youth’ (2001), which outlined the importance of consulting young people on policy fields that affect them directly. The aim is to create a dialogue between young people and youth organisations with policy and decision makers, as well as experts, researchers and other members of civil society.

Key Policy Messages

  • The European Youth Forum strives for the meaningful engagement of young people and youth organisations throughout the entire process, from design to implementation, and evaluation both at European and national level.
  • The European Youth Forum calls for clear commitments of relevant decision-makers towards the EU Youth Dialogue, and for improved follow-up on the dialogue’s conclusions after a complete cycle, with timely regular concrete feedback and a clear visible follow-up on different levels at least after every cycle.

Council of Europe Co-management Structure

The Council of Europe’s co-management system has long been promoted as a living example of participatory democracy. It is a decision-making structure where youth representatives in the Advisory Council on Youth (CCJ) and national government officials in the European Steering Committee for Youth (CDEJ) have equal say in the decisions of the Joint Council on Youth (CMJ). The CMJ is the political body that takes the decisions on the Council of Europe’s youth sector’s priorities, programmes and budget.

The European Youth Forum plays a significant role in nominating a share of the 30 youth representatives to become members of the Advisory Council on Youth and supporting, and coordinating with the Advisory Council afterwards.

Key Policy Messages

  • The Youth Forum has long promoted the co-management system as a best practice in participatory policy-making, and as a positive example of how an international institution can give legitimacy to its decisions on youth issues.

UN Youth Delegate Programmes

The Youth Delegate Programme is a key piece in the big puzzle of an overarching architecture of youth participation in the United Nations, where youth delegates are included in a country’s official delegation to the United Nations General Assembly and various functional Commissions of the Economic and Social Council. It is the responsibility of Member States to establish a youth delegate programme at the national level, and to decide who will represent the young people of their country at the United Nations.

There are no common standards to define how youth delegates are selected or what role they play in their country’s delegation. In the past, the European Youth Forum organised a number of capacity building meetings for UN Youth Delegates coming from Europe with an aim to ensure more meaningful and effective youth participation in the UN, and to support its Member organisations in their efforts to improve the quality of the programmes in Europe. Most European National Youth Councils play a prominent role in the coordination and implementation of the UN Youth Delegate Programme in their countries.

Key Policy Messages

  • The European Youth Forum believes any youth participation and representation mechanisms in international institutions should abide by the guiding principles: a rights-based approach, democracy and representation, inclusiveness, transparency and accountability, and effective and meaningful participation.

The democratic world has seen participation in institutional politics decline for more than two decades. At the centre of this decline is a growing sense of distance between young people and the traditional institutions of representative democracy, with the biggest evidence of this found in declining youth turnouts in elections and political party memberships. 

On the other hand, when looking at other forms of political activism, young people are at the heart of most social movements in recent years, leading protests, campaigns, as well as activism on social media worldwide. The European Youth Forum’s focus in this regard has been on research into how to bridge the gap between young people, their changing forms of activism, and the traditional institutions of democracy, which remain the main sources of political power and influence. 

The European Youth Forum has also led several high-visibility elections campaigns to ensure that young people and the issues they care about are at the centre of debates and political discourse in the run-up to European elections.

Key Policy Messages

  • The European Youth Forum calls on politicians and political institutions to open up their structures and embrace the energy and creativity of young people and youth organisations. By including young people in decision making and removing the obstacles they face in entering politics leads to better, more inclusive policies, and thus to stronger and more sustainable democratic systems.

Vote at 16

Lowering the voting age to 16 has been a longstanding policy of the European Youth Forum. The right to vote is a fundamental democratic right, and a key element to participating in modern democracy. Denying this right to citizens requires exceptional justification. 16-year-olds, more than ever before, possess the maturity and knowledge to make important decisions, as they already do regarding their education, living situation and career. 

After Austria lowered the voting age to 16 in 2007, research consistently showed that under-18’s were as willing and able to participate as their older peers. They followed the same voting patterns and were not excessively influenced by extremist parties or politicians. 

Paired with effective citizenship education in schools, a lower voting age makes it much easier to instil a habit of voting in young people while they still live at home and have strong roots and interest in their local communities, thus boosting lifelong participation rates.

Key Policy Messages

  • The European Youth Forum supports the lowering of the voting age to 16 in all elections, from the European to the most local level.

Youth & political parties

A key factor in young people’s exclusion from the traditional institutions of democracy is the lack of youth representation and involvement in the life of political parties. If young people don’t take part in political party life, the result is that political parties do not know how to engage with them, and do not prioritise the issues they care about, or include them on electoral candidates’ lists.

The European Youth Forum’s focus in this regard has been on research on what are the defining factors and conditions that lead to a better relationship between youth and political parties.

Key Policy Messages

  • Political parties should draft coherent and comprehensive strategies on how to promote youth interests in the party. This should include the strengthening and support of their youth wings, securing their autonomy and independence while giving them prominent roles and responsibilities in terms of determining the political party’s youth agenda.
  • Political parties should also work with their youth organisations to select, train and promote young candidates to elections at all levels of legislature, and consider the introduction of quotas for young candidates on their party lists.

Youth & elections campaigns

In a situation where young people are not participating in elections, political parties and candidates are less inclined to include them and the issues they care about in their campaigns, leading to a vicious circle as young people are then less and less likely to engage. The European Youth Forum has, in the past, organised its own pan-European elections campaigns, such as the League of Young Voters (2014) or #ChangeIsComing (2019), to provide youth-friendly information about what is at stake in the elections, as well as organise high-profile debates and activities that put young people and the issues they care about at the centre of the elections campaigns.

Key Policy Messages

  • Voters, especially young people, should be informed of electoral processes explaining why, when and how to participate, in very clear and transparent campaigns that combine online and offline information, and use a variety of communication channels (e.g. Voting Advice Applications, posters, leaflets, newspapers, TV, institutional and media websites and social media).
  • Elections campaigns should include debates that focus on young people and the issues they care about, and provide youth with platforms to challenge and debate these issues with electoral candidates.

According to numerous polls conducted on young people, the lack of political knowledge, competence and literacy, are perceived as the most important barrier to the full and informed participation of youth in democratic processes. There is a serious lack of access to quality citizenship education in schools. When implemented, citizenship education curricula are seen as ill-designed and taught in educational environments that neither promote a democratic culture, nor the willingness to connect youth with political issues in a suitable environment. 

There is no common definition of what constitutes quality citizenship education in a way that would provide young people with the skills and competences they need to be confident and efficacious in democratic processes. The European Youth Forum’s focus in this regard has been on fostering dialogue towards a rethinking of citizenship education in formal education settings, both in terms of content and teaching methods. The Youth Forum also promotes the recognition of youth organisations and non-formal education settings as providing quality citizenship education, by empowering young people with all skills, critical thinking, values and habits that are needed to take part in local, national and European political life as active citizens.

Key Policy Messages

  • The European Youth Forum calls for the fostering of an on-going and Europe-wide dialogue on a common understanding of citizenship education. Such a definition should recognise the added value of a more holistic, participatory and learner-centred approach to citizenship education.
  • Youth organisations and other non-formal education civil society organisations should be recognised and supported as providers of citizenship education. They give young people the possibility to develop their values, skills and competencies that are necessary to take part in democratic processes. Partnerships between young organisations and formal education providers, such as schools, should be encouraged and supported.

Key Documents and Resources