Political culture in oblivion?
The contemporary European youth seems to be living in prosperity and comfort incomparable in the history of the continent, providing unique tools for experiencing and influencing youngsters’ environment within the whole Europe. The values constituting the very foundations of the European project, such as free movement of people or the support for human rights and equality allow the teenagers to flourish to unlimited degree. Young minds can freely express their thoughts without a risk of being prosecuted and harassed or they can obtain foreign education much easier than their parents did. This however, cannot obscure grim facts and challenges young societies face today. Critics highlight that the youth, despite the socio-political conditions it lives in, is distancing itself from both European and national politics. This is especially true among EU newcomers from Central and Eastern Europe, where youth’s turnout in the elections (both European and national) is traditionally lower than among older voters. In other words: are younger generations ready to take responsibility for their future or are they doomed to fall into nihilism?
Is there any hope?
The last European elections revealed that the latter does not necessarily hold true. Not only did the turnout soar among European youth to the degree unmatched before (+14 pp among up to 24 yr) but it also rose in countries in the deepest crisis of youngsters’ participation in European civil movement, such as in Spain or Poland. There are many possible reasons of this phenomenon, among which institutionalization and inclusion of young generations into political decision-making process seems to play a crucial long-term role. Local Youth Councils serve as a perfect embodiment of this process. The Councils are formal and informal bodies, usually on the local level-within towns, cities and municipalities. They also do not possess legislative powers as such or independent means like autonomous money, which is usually derogated from town’s overall budget under close supervision of the authorities. Depending on the country, the spectrum of their legal-political influence varies as well as their selection process. What is common for them, is their priceless impact on public engagement of young people.
Despite lack of funds and constitutional power, the councils manage to conduct their agendas. The example of Local Youth Council of Olsztynek in Poland reveals how sophisticated and effective their actions can be both on local and nationwide scale. One of the most recent activities of the body includes public–space-policy campaign, promoting ecologic approaches in reinventing public spaces within the town. Firstly, the council organized an open meeting with citizens, diagnosing the main urbanistic and environmental problems of their shared space. After listening into the voices of inhabitants, the councillors led the research walk, suggesting proposals for revitalization of the local beach. Finally, once the representatives gained necessary expertise and publicity, they confronted their project with the town authorities who decided to allocate 50,000 PLN (almost 12,000 EUR) for its purpose.
Young people often have to face accusations of either political ignorance or extremism due to their voting behaviour expressed through the support of extremist or populist parties accompanied by little overall turnout. The practices developed by the youth councils paint a rather adverse picture. For instance, during the spring 2019, Local Council of Quart de Poblet organised a series of debates preceding the Spanish regional elections. During these meetings, young people did not only have a chance to convey their perspectives to the political figures but they were also able to force the politicians into the debate about the situation of young people.
How to support the councils?
It seems clear that Youth Councils constitute perfect fora for involvement and creative engagement of young people. However, their meaningful existence can only be ensured under appropriate legal setting. One of the possibly best replicable examples include Law No. 15/2017 on Inclusive Youth Policies of the Valencian Community. This law establishes guidelines for youth policies whose principles include: comprehensiveness, mainstreaming, proximity, universality and equality. It also draws the lines of intervention to how youth policies should be designed, always as a co-responsibility of different levels of public administration. While for many development of youth electoral bodies represents a futile endeavor, the examples displayed above suggest that they have enormous impact on their immediate environment which is often acknowledged and recognized by local authorities, eager to confront themselves with perspectives not always attainable for political bureaucracy. Establishing Local Youth Councils is a growing trend, already solidly established in older European democracies, yet nevertheless, they are still newcomers in Central Eastern Europe. Regardless of geographical location, their actions, conducted either in Poland, Spain or any other EU country can induce real debate, quality change and true generational takeover.
The Polish Robert Schuman Foundation is a leader of the Erasmus+ founded project ‘International cooperation for inclusive and powerful Local Youth Councils’ which was implemented to increase the participation of young people in public life, particularly in local decision-making processes. Within this initiative of three organizations from Poland, Spain and France we focused on Youth Councils as a tool of participation. Please find here an useful publication about how to create and support inclusive and powerful local youth councils issued within the project.