The motto “Think global, act local” fits like a glove to the subject of youth political participation. Nowadays politicians are younger than the heads of state of fifty years ago. The UK, for instance, has just elected its youngest Prime Minister in almost 200 years, but still, David Cameron is 39 years old and an exception – that’s why we remember it. So, is it possible for a European in his twenties to effectively participate in the decision making process?
As Reingard Spannring, professor at the Institute of Educational Sciences in the University of Innsbruck, Austria, puts it: “Young people go to demonstrations for peace, but they don’t care about discussions about a 40 euro increase in pensions. They’re very involved in areas like environment, equality and justice because these concepts are easier to grasp than everyday politics.”
There’s a negative shadow following young people today who are perceived as being lazy and hedonistic. There are many words that could describe this misconception, all of which meaning that young people don’t care about anything but themselves and all of them representing an obstacle to those who really want to make a change.
“Young people have to prove themselves to adults. It takes time to show them that we’re not just sitting around and enjoying ourselves, when in fact we really do care about what’s happening around us. The main obstacle to youth participation is that adults are not taking young people seriously, yet,” says Anton Kuzmin, president of the Olomouc Youth County Council in the Czech Republic.
As with almost everything in life, here too Anton Kuzmin has a positive perspective. He believes that the situation is slowly changing and that politicians are starting to pay attention to what young people have to say. A vision that’s shared by Anne-Jetske Schaap, a member of In-Spe, a Dutch political youth organization that strives to involve young people in political activities: “I know that they are listening to what we say because I’ve seen it happen. In my region (Gelderland, the Netherlands) there are young people that give assistance to adult politicians and they’re putting their ideas into practice”.
Breaking down walls
Some of the difficulties about being young and politically active don’t come from the outside. “There’s a considerable part of young people that are alienated because politics is spoken in a language that they don’t understand. Many of them, think that their problems are their own when in fact they’re shared by the whole community”, explains Professor Reingard Spanning. Or as Anton Kuzmin sees it: “They just gave up.”
As it is unlikely that someone in their twenties can be a member of parliament or the government in the near future, young people are finding their own ways of breaking into the political system through new forms of activism, like online petitions and forums. In spite of those new public spaces provided by the Internet, subsidiarity is still the easiest path to young people that want to have their say. Many of them may not know what the word subsidiarity means, but all around Europe people like Anne-Jetske Schaap or Anton Kuzmin are putting it to use by working in their towns or regions to make a positive global impact.
In the Croatian county of Krapinsko-Zagorska, 90 youngsters from more than 40 European regions, all members of the Youth Regional Network, in the Assembly of European Regions, came together to discuss how change starts from the smallest and nearest level of government. It is there that their voice is best heard and more easily taken into account. And what is the input that a young, inexperienced person has to offer to professional politics? “As a young person you know best the issues concerning youth. You see it all the time. You’re confronted with them”, answers Anne-Jetske Schaap. Like that old English saying goes: It is he who wears the shoe that knows where it hurts.
By: Ana Brasil