AFCO

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Committee on Constitutional Affairs (AFCO)

With young, activist citizens marching en masse for ends like Fridays For Future and Black Lives Matter, it is becoming increasingly clear that their opinions are not reflected well in the European political agenda of today. In an age where more and more citizens get involved in political movements digitally, European democracies fail to accommodate citizens that engage in politics virtually. What should Member States do to improve the engagement between policy makers and the younger generations via digital means?

emilie

Chaired by:

Emilie Lutz (FR)

nadege

Written by:

Nadège Widmer (CH)

Topic at a Glance

Captions
Hi, my name is Emilie and I will be the chair of the AFCO committee, which will discuss youth engagement, nowadays done more and more online, mostly through social media like Instagram, Twitter, or TikTok. We will question the relationship between the youth and the local, national, and European political institutions. 

They have new forms of civic engagement, different from the one of older generations, but it does not mean that it doesn’t have an impact on the real world, as seen with the Black Lives Matter movement, Fridays for future, and other national issues. However, the ideals of this young generation are often not reflected in the political system, mostly because underaged people are not allowed to vote yet, and because the engagement is done on very different platforms of communication.

Our goal will be to find ways to close the gap between this young generation, who wants their opinion heard, and the existing political system, and the elected officials within it. To find new ways to ensure communication between the youth and the politics – without excluding people who don’t have access to online tools

The participation of over 153 countries in Fridays For Future protests on 27th September 2019, gathering altogether over 3.7 million people, shows the growing importance of activism among young people. Digital activism or cyberactivism, is defined as a form of activism using the internet and digital media as key platforms for mass mobilisation and political action. This non-traditional form of political engagement challenges the classical definition of civic culture. As a result, these new means of participation are scarcely taken into account and addressed by older generations and policy makers.

Context

In the age of a global pandemic, digital means have been taken by storm and became increasingly significant tools of communication. However, the pandemic emphasised the challenges of getting involved as a young European and further exposed the issues around the value of cyberactivism.

Recently a general trend of decline in voter turnout has been noticed and is all the more marked in younger generations. First of all, it is important to point out that a drop in electoral participation does not imply less participation in civic life. The Eurobarometer survey conducted in 2017 depicts young people’s involvement in different social, cultural and political voluntary organisations. Platforms and organisations such as the European Youth Portal and the European Youth Forum (EYF) have played a considerable role in this progress. These institutions, which seek to strengthen the inclusion of youth in the political process, promote the engagement of young European citizens. For instance, the EYF represents more than 100 youth organisations from all over Europe. The EYF’s Strategic Plan 2020-2023 plans to empower young people by voicing their interests on the European level. The network strives to develop digital tools such as the EU Youth Dialogue which aims to create dialogue between young Europeans, youth organisations and policy makers.

The notion of e-democracy, including digital instruments for improving democratic practices, and its development illustrate a path for narrowing the gap between European citizens and their political representatives. The European Movement International’s position paper on Citizens’ participation in the digital age: e-democracy highlights the immense complexity of existing tools in the democratic process such as the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). They urge the EU to set up a more user-friendly instrument and promote the integration of youth in such initiatives.

Relevant Policy Measures and Legal Framework

Within the framework of the European Commission’s Priorities for 2019-2024, a digital strategy has been developed in order to enhance the digital sovereignty of the European Union as well as establish standards. This initiative highlights the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in different areas of European interest, including building a reliable democratic society. The Movement for an Universal and Digitally Active Citizenship, which is one of the initiatives making up Shaping Europe’s digital future and part of the European Commission’s Digital Strategy, consists of increasing the access to the digital world in order to create active and critical citizens. Such initiatives represent a step in the right direction to integrate digital skills into democratic life.

A significant piece of policy measures concerning young Europeans is contained in the European Union Youth Strategy 2019-2027. The Council of the European Union emphasises through their resolution the need to tackle three specific areas within the youth sector, which are: engagement, the connection and the network. It promotes the usage of digital technologies and further highlights the understanding of these tools by young Europeans. This is reflected in the European Youth Goal #9 – Space and Participation for All, which acknowledges the importance of youth participation in the decision-making process.

Additionally, the Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on Cyberactivism and civil society organisations identifies the shortcomings of European legislation, support and methodology relative to digital activism. The European Economic and Social Committee especially points out the lack of standards and principles in the application of mechanisms for cyberactivism. Their proposal for action suggests the implementation and development of digital infrastructure, which encourages cyberactivism and online participation in the political sphere.

According to  Articles 6 and 165 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), the field concerning youth falls under the supporting competences of the EU. This implies that the EU can only intervene in order to support, coordinate or complement the actions of the Member States. Furthermore, the Member States do not have to harmonise national laws and regulations in this field, which makes it more challenging to achieve common goals throughout the EU. Recommendations can be drawn up and serve as guidelines for the Member States, but these proposals do not legally bind them.

In the area of digital rights, the European Digital Rights network serves as an advocate for rights and freedoms in cyberspace. Thus, this network is a key actor when it comes to the usage of digital instruments, especially in the democratic process.

Topic Analysis

Individual

Digital engagement is foremost an individual thing. It touches upon the singular view each person has of political participation. It is clear that two different groups of individuals form the core of the issue: European youth en policy makers. There exists an apparent gap between each group’s interests and the way they are formulated. It may be interesting to focus on what the drivers of changing forms of participation could be and why informal means of participation are rising. In the Young Europe 2019 study by the TUI Foundation, respondents’ aged from 16 to 26 have, 3 out of 4 times, expressed greater consideration for the elections of their national parliaments to the detriment of the European Parliament elections. This reveals once again the feeling that young Europeans’ interests are not fully represented at the European level.

On the other hand, young Europeans are increasingly eager to participate in some form in the political debate in their country. What is more, studies have shown that people engaging in cyberactivism also strongly engage in politics offline. Many scholars argue that such unconventional methods of engagement are bound to fail as they never turn the political activism into concrete political action or legislation. In fact, the undermining and absence of rallying with existing political parties is often criticised since it jeopardises the current party system.

Additionally, digital engagement also represents risks on an individual level. Although social media and digital tools were created as a way to connect and share, the entirety of the collected data can always become a tool to undermine activists. People need to engage in cyberspace whilst being aware of the risks and knowing their rights.

National

Youth is a considerable actor of the political sphere. The engagement of the youth is becoming a crucial point in national political agendas over Europe. Member States are realising that many young Europeans do not believe in the current democratic system and its ability to represent what they stand for.

In the Netherlands, the Dutch National Youth Council aims for greater youth participation and represents their interests. However, there is no existing legislation tackling the participation of young Dutch in the democratic process, especially digital activism.

In this sense, the United Kingdom’s (UK) Parliament’s Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement’s report 2017-2019 underlines the opportunities that digital tools and social media offer. The government, in its collaboration with citizens, encourages organisations such as Democracy Club en mySociety, which produce digital tools to promote new civic engagement forms.

European

The European Citizens’ Initiative is a tool, which grants citizens the opportunity to draft new law proposals. In the same vein, the European Youth Ideas is a platform created by the Youth Outreach Unit of the European Parliament, where young people are able to outline their ideas on current European issues and suggest their thoughts on the future of Europe. Hence, the platform is an example of establishing a link between young Europeans and the European Parliament using digital technology.

International

The United Nations (UN) have set up a Youth Strategy for 2030, which serves as a guideline for the establishment of an European strategy. The plan of action aims to improve meeting youth demands and establishes as their first priority the engagement, participation and advocacy of young people. Moreover, the Voices of Youth network consists in empowering young people and encouraging them to speak up, share and take action. This digital community is UNICEF’s digital platform, which was created for the youth and by the youth.

Further Research and Questions

In the latest years, the importance of the youth and its interests seem to have become a more pressing issue for Member States. Political participation is a crucial topic on many levels: at the local, national, European and international levels. However, the increase in informal means of participation, especially the use of digital technologies, depicts the growing disparity in the democratic system. Further research ought to encompass the drivers of the lack of representation of young people in the EU.

  • What role do policy-makers have to take on in order to allow a shift to digital engagement?
  • How can digital tools change the decision-making process in order to increase the efficiency of the representation system?
  • How can the EU encourage its Member States to take action considering their differences in the technologic field?
  • How can the youth best voice their interest with existing tools and take part in the establishment of regulations regarding digital democracy?
  • How would you like to participate in politics? What potential advantages do you see in the use of digital means to engage in politics?