by Amerissa Giannouli
Young people’s perception of the European Union (EU), the ways they exist, act and react within its reality has been a matter of political discussions that shaped European and national youth policies. This article explores and analyzes the main means for youth participation in policy-making at the EU level focusing on the case of Greece.
It is common knowledge that nowadays, especially the young people, are trying to identify different means of political participation beyond the traditional ones (eg. voting, participation in political parties). In Greece, the level of electoral participation, both among youth and the general population, is among the highest in the EU. However, the way democracy is being practiced and applied nowadays through our representatives and within the relevant organized fundamental structures (eg. hierarchical composition of the political parties, the trade unions, the university unions) is being questioned. Alternatively, young people will be involved in NGOs, youth clubs, informal groups, engage into cyber activism and try to find other ways of participating in the community within the civil society. This is not so unexpected if we think that young people connect with things that are closely related to them (family, friends, school, and work) and which are forming and have direct effect to their everyday life activities.
On the contrary, the EU reality may feel to be something distant, even irrelevant, despite the nice promotional materials and campaigns towards “the voice of the young people” that tend to reach mainly the big cities and regional centers of the country. However, issues such as the climate change and human rights, tend to be more effective into mobilizing the young community beyond the limited borders of the state. A great example is the protests “Fridays for Future” where young people across the globe are demanding effective policies to address the climate crisis. The initiative has not been associated with any particular political direction which is something that young people cherish and try to protect. This may reflect the general mistrust and indignation towards top-down politics that tend to divide the citizens into group fanatics. It is more realistic for a young person to participate in a social local initiative, participate in a school protest, dance, draw, and sing for a cause than initiating a “brutal” discussion about the EU economic policies, for example, that normally ends up with raising voices, accusing each other and a feeling of hopelessness.
Understanding the tendency of youth preferences on democratic means of participation that are directed by them for them, the EU has developed mechanisms and policies that aim to encourage political participation of youth on EU level. Although they may not be well known to the young public, the most prominent mechanisms for their legislative importance and value are:
•The European Youth Event: Young people between 16-30 years old forming a group of at least 10 people can apply to participate in this big event. During the event young people from different countries have the opportunity to form policy ideas, draft reports and initiate debates with the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). The problem is that in order to do so, assuming that you manage to form a group of 10 people, you need to cover your own transportation, accommodation, and meals in Strasbourg. Realistically, if there is no other national, local or European financial support, it is difficult for a young person facing social or economic obstacles to join this promising event.
•The European Youth Conference: Here is another great opportunity supported by the European Youth Forum, which is the platform of youth organizations in Europe, as well as the European Commission and the Council of EU. This particular conference is part of the EU Youth Dialogue (also known as Structured Dialogue in the past). During the EU Youth Conferences, representatives of the National Working Groups are gathered together with policymakers, Ministers and Commissioners to discuss youth policies. In principle, between the conferences, there are public consultations with other young people about the issues introduced during the conferences. At the end of every cycle of the EU Youth Dialogue (18 months in total), recommendations are produced and distributed to the relevant stakeholders. It looks very promising and democratic. Still, a few questions remain: “who composes the National Working Groups?” In the National Working Groups, young people from the national youth councils, members of NGOs, representatives of the National Agencies, experts and other relevant stakeholders can take part. The National Working Groups represent the young people during these conferences and ideally, work on policies together with young people and policymakers on a national and local level. In the case of Greece, however, it is questionable how well young people are represented by non-elected individuals, even if these are also young people. Furthermore, at least in Greece, work on local level seems to be insufficient. The good news is that if you are chosen to participate in this conference, the accommodation, transportation, and meals are covered by the European Commission and the National Agencies involved. Open calls for external participants are also available, but of course, there are some specific standards with regards to the learning and experience background of the candidates in the field of youth. Beyond these main mechanisms for direct youth engagement in EU politics, the European Commission following the EU youth policies is allocating a significant amount of money to support European mobility, active citizenship, structured dialogue and volunteering opportunities for young people, students, non-students, non-profit organizations, youth workers, educators, and other relevant public and private agents aiming to reinforce the sense of belonging and participation in the EU and EU affairs. These programs, although they are not legislative mechanisms, are considered to be opportunities for the civil society to engage young people into political participation and advocate towards their rights and their vision about the EU and beyond. The civil society in Greece working in the filed of youth is using such EU funding opportunities to support the development and implementation of numerous youth, sport, educational and policy oriented projects. Indeed, the sustainability of NGOs activity in Greece in the filed of youth (and beyond) is strongly connected to EU funding. EU funds have helped to mobilize young citizens. The problem is that there is a relatively short-term impact of such projects, while most of the times there is not enough cooperation and support by the local administration and the state. Furthermore, the increased focus in entrepreneurship and “soft skills” for employability due to the Greek economic circumstances may demote the importance of social development and active citizenship. Moreover, the term “solidarity” might has been exploited in a way to promote a version of “volunteerism” that does not resemble an unselfish act of kindness but a commodity, another work related qualification to become competitive.
Finally, one of the main advocators towards the youth rights is the Council of Europe. As a young person associated with a youth organization, you can participate in activities organized and funded (European Youth Forum) by the Council of Europe. Unfortunately, the Council of Europe is not an institution of the EU, it is an organization, an important organization, but with no legislative power. However, it is a strong player in the European debates for promoting and securing the youth rights across Europe, drafting policy recommendations and implementing researches addressed to the relevant European institutions.
Despite the attempts from the EU institutions, policies and programs to engage youth with EU developments, young people in Europe still feel the distance from the “mythical Brussels”. According to the consultations during the VI Cycle of Structured Dialogue, young people do not feel familiar with the EU and its functions and moreover, they do not know how they can participate in it. In fact, “young people feel they receive little accessible information directly from EU institutions about the concrete impact of EU decisions on their everyday lives”. Young people seem to look forward to less political jargon, social media and alternative channels to connect and communicate with the EU institutions and their representatives. Based on our experiences in the field of youth and after discussing with young people in Greece, these are also national concerns. Young people by participating expect to see their proposals and interventions to be taken under consideration. It is very nice to come together to international meetings, make new friends, discuss about culture, local and common problems and make proposals. However, what comes next also matters. The level that these proposals are ending up to the relevant offices and “ears” is questionable. Young people need to have control over the policies that are developing, are implemented and are affecting them. In addition, the role of the civil society in advocating for youth participation in the political affairs of the EU should be strengthened and become more consistent.
In the following section, some proposals addressing the aforementioned needs are presented. It should be kept in mind that inevitably, in order to reach the EU level of political participation, some kind of local and national intervention will be required. Based on the presented mechanisms and opportunities of youth participation at EU level, young people can have different levels of access to the EU institutions and participate in the policy making processes. However, passing from the local and national mechanisms gives them the legitimacy to do so. For this reason, the first step for participation in the EU is making sure that young people in Greece can actually participate in their local and national political developments.
For the case of Greece, it is recommended to offer institutionally recognized and supported spaces (tangible and intangible) to interested young people where they will be sufficiently informed and involved in the community and decision making process in local, national and EU level. Furthermore, the collaboration between different stakeholders and institutions for the effective promotion of these spaces in urban and rural areas should be secured. In specific, it is proposed to:
-Transform the formal educational system in a dynamic and participatory space for dialogue, cooperation and co-creation, rather than competition. This requires challenging the hierarchical structures within and outside the classroom (schools and universities). There are already some educational initiatives and alliances that promote democratic education and holistic learning. These should be further supported by the civil society and the institutions in the field of youth and education in order to accommodate discussions and processes taking place on the EU level and making the EU more relevant to the young people. The role of the civil society is essential and should be taken more seriously not just by the public institutions but the civic organizations in the sense that they develop long-term projects involving different stakeholders. Changes in the culture of political participation in Greece is needed.
-Create or change channels for non-formal and formal political consultation between youth and local governance (e.g. the municipalities) and later on scaling-up the process to the EU level. Young people need first to learn how to be involved and feel connected with their own small community, and then it will be easier to understand the larger EU picture.
-Support strategic alliances between civil society organization, schools, universities, and local governance for the organization of community-led initiatives. This requires cooperation in a more systematic and long-term manner that calls for more direct communication and strategic planning. It is expected to enhance the sense of belonging in the community and initiative, important qualities for an active citizen. It could involve the creation of youth centers that will be managed by local youth aiming to support their empowerment, personal and social development. In line with the European Commission’s funding opportunities, there is a special category named “Strategic Alliances” that addresses this issue. Nevertheless, it is not always easy to involve the different parties in such alliances. Efforts to strengthen these possibilities should be made by all the different parties, starting with local initiatives and then reaching up to EU level. Trust in the system and more political will is needed.
-Reinforce and explore the potential of the youth councils where young people could take leading roles and participate in the national youth council that represents youth in national and European affairs. These could be part of the structure of the local governance but being independent of political parties. Basically, they could connect young people with the municipality and also advice and make policy proposals that later on could be transfer to higher political levels. Strategic participation of the official youth-led national mechanisms in EU affairs is needed.
-Support the aforementioned initiatives in areas beyond the urban centers. In general, young people coming from less privileged areas or socio-economic structures should be better informed and included in the mechanisms of participation in policy making. This will require from the civil society to expand their activities range to areas beyond the urban communities. Connecting with youth in different places in Greece is needed to mobilize more young people from the periphery and the rural areas. This particular intervention, in the long run, may give the base for reforming and developing the less privileged communities into places that young people will be willing to stay, create and be connected with the rest of Greece and Europe. Decentralization is needed.
-Have more transparency, accountability and representation within the National Youth Council that represents Greece in the European Youth Forum. It goes hand in hand with the reinforcement of the activities of the National Working Group that is involved in the EU Youth Dialogue by bringing the dialogue back at the local level together with local administration and local authorities. More legitimacy is needed.
-Financial support either by the state or the civil society for participation in the European Youth Event with the aim to involve young people that have not lived such experience before. Additional financial support for the field of youth is needed.
-Publish regular policy proposals based on regular meetings with young people from different areas and backgrounds, incorporating also their views and ideas. Make use of available EU mechanisms that undertake research and draft policy proposals to the national and European policy makers. Alternative ways to advocate should be further investigated from the side of the civil society. More pressure is needed.
-Youth Work aiming to empower young people. Private and public services have been offered to vulnerable people and people with fewer opportunities. However, real empowerment is something that needs time and structures of trust to flourish. Such structures could be the family, the school environment, friends and even the small collaborative community-based interventions. It is essential to create the sense of life ownership, the idea that “no matter the age I am, I can at a certain extent define my life and my role in the community”. Especially youth from vulnerable backgrounds and fewer opportunities, need to feel and be safe, be comfortable to act where they live and be able to trust in order to express themselves. This feels a lot like what youth work should look like. If not financial, at least institutionally and in-kind the state should provide support for the official recognition and standards implementation of youth work in Greece.
Communicating with and learning about the EU institutions is one thing. Actual participating and being able to inform and transform EU policies, is another. Alternative means of action by forming informal groups of people, creating campaigns, protesting and using social media takes young people to a more “real” level of interaction, more bottom-up and less top-down given means. Being also “inactive” and “indifferent” could also be a statement and a way to show to the public that something is not right. Otherwise, we would not make such a big fuss about youth participation in the first place.
Young people and people, in general, need to feel firstly the union in their homes and then the European Union. Greece still has a long way to go in order to establish trust among the young people, the political and public institutions. Even the civil society needs to be further organized in a more consistent and long-term manner to address youth challenges and make use of youth potentialities. Our modern society and the multiple-faced crises experienced might have been shaking us up these years causing uncertainty and mistrust to the socio-political situation. Under these circumstances, we might forget what it means to be part of a community, to belong, to trust and to care for others. We need to safeguard these values to make it much easier to feel more related to our European community.
Amerissa Giannouli is a project manager at Inter Alia. Amerissa holds a BSc in Economics and a MSc in European Economic Policy