Across many parts of Europe the face of democracy as we have known it is changing. We need to ensure today’s youth engage and are heard in political processes, says the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights ahead of International Youth Day on 12 August. This is especially vital at a time when the fundamental rights that affect us all are under threat.
Election results in many parts of Europe have sent shockwaves throughout political establishments. Electorates have grown tired of political elites and have spurned traditional parties, upsetting the democratic order that has prevailed in many EU Member States.
This political shift may have profound effects on societies, as populist views become mainstream and more widely accepted potentially. This may in turn fuel intolerance and hatred. Against such a backdrop it is vital that younger generations actively take part in democratic processes, and their views are heard and taken into consideration. Younger voters also need to be know that their voices count and can make a difference.
For this to happen, they need to be involved from an early age and be given the opportunities to voice opinions and be heard in decision making procedures. Some cities and countries have established children and youth councils or advisors. For example, the Maltese President’s Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society has its own Children and Young Persons Councils, Ireland has a national child participation strategy, in Sweden the Ombudsman for Children holds regular consultations with children and recently FRA held a conference where children shared their views with policy makers and experts on such burning issues as migration, and poverty and exclusion. Such initiatives allow young people to be consulted on issues that affect them. They are given the chance to have a say on issues that concern them and these views are taken on board.
It should be remembered that child participation is enshrined in core human rights instruments such as the UN’s Child Rights Convention and the EU’s Fundamental Rights Charter which all EU Member States have signed up to. Policies also ensure young adults, older than 18, participate in decision-making processes.
This in itself reveals a crucial difference. Children are protected by human rights standards. When they are no longer considered children and are instead young adults, they lose this protection and only policies prevail.
However, there are often differences in the ages that define young people. For example, the UN considers youths as being between 15 and 24 but in its Convention on the Rights of the Child defines children as being below the age of 18.
In addition, the lack of clear criteria for minimum age requirements and discrepancies in age requirements contradicts the notion of participation dictated by human rights instruments. Voting rights are a classic example where there are differences across Member States depending on the type of elections, whether they are national, regional, local or even European. For example, Austria is the only EU Member State where at the age of 16 you can vote in all elections.
Being a candidate in elections is another example. The right to stand as a candidate varies from one country to another. In ranges from 18 to 40 years old, depending on the kind of election.
To increase political participation for young people clear policies are needed both at the national and European levels. By improving political participation, the voices of young people will be heard and listened to. Ultimately, this should help shape a better Europe.