The European Youth Forum is the platform of youth organisations in Europe. As an independent, democratic, youth-led NGO, it “strives for youth rights and works to empower young people to participate actively in society to improve their own lives”. And yet, reality sometimes proves an obstacle to the will of empowerment. We are currently witnessing the gradual decrease in youth electoral participation, especially at the European level. Facing the problem, the European Youth Forum decided to launch a new initiative: the League of Young Voters, with the aim of bringing youth to the forefront of the next European electoral campaign.
John Lisney, Assistant to the Secretary-General and coordinator of the League of Young Voters project, and Jennifer de Nijs, League of Young Voters Consultant responsible for external relations, explain us what is at stake.
Genealogy of the project
The project started in 2011 when the European Youth Forum was concerned of the statistics for the EU elections: from 33 % in 2004, the youth participation rate had reached the level of 29 % in 2009 despite several communications campaigns led by the European institutions. In summer 2011, a study was conducted by the European Youth Forum in order to find out why young people between 16 (who vote in Austria) and 35 did not vote for the 2004 and 2009 EU elections. The study supervised by two consultants, amongst which Jennifer de Nijs, was grounded on a comprehensive approach. From interviews, inquiries and data analysis, it revealed a big problem in terms of communication. On the one hand, politicians explained that it made more sense for them to target other generations of the population than youth. Not only did they find it hard to target young people, but they also took the demographic argument into account: other generations tend to vote more and are more numerous. On the other hand, surveys conducted among youth showed either a lack of awareness or a lack of interest. Most young people did not feel concerned by the discussed topics and did not feel that voting had a direct impact on their lives. The only topic that was generally talked about was the Erasmus programme, which does not target all youth. For instance, the question of youth unemployment was rarely discussed at the time. And the website of the European Parliament was often perceived as too complicated. Hence the question: how to reach youth? How to engage them?
The League of Young Voters was initiated by the European Youth Forum with a two-way approach: 1- setting up an online platform with the aim of targeting the relevant topics and 2- creating a real two-way dialogue between youth and political parties. Young people should be provided with easy-to-access non-partisan information about why and how to vote, and information linked with their main concerns (unemployment, environment, education…) and the different positions on these issues. Information is a key element in the sense that it favours a better understanding of the political debate. A ranking system, that will show the evolution of the burning issues, will also be implemented. Any young person could share his or her viewpoint upon the general situation. It will consequently bring visibility to the recurrent issues. At present and with the aim of making this visibility efficient, an agreement has been signed with four major political groups of the European Parliament: the EPP (European People’s Party), the Alde Party (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe), the PES (Party of European Socialists), and the EGP (European Green Party), which have all agreed to take on board the issues identified by the League of Young Voters in their electoral campaigns and to provide candidates for live-streamed debates.
Thus all these measures aim at reinforcing democracy and raise the question of the use of public space. More than a mere facilitator, the League of Young Voters appears as an instrument that strengthens the use of a genuine public space, a space that directly connects the young and their representatives (within the framework of representative democracy) and that favours direct participation to the political debates (within the framework of a more participative democracy).
An Initiative for Youth, by Youth
Inspired by the League of Women Voters founded in the USA in 1920, shortly before the women were granted the right to vote, the League of Young Voters has chosen to adapt its communication methods to the targeted audience, to use tools designed for young people. The notion of interactivity must be underlined. It is at the core of the project. First and foremost, all the debates will be streamed online and broadcast through different media. Flyers and social networks will be used. But the most original tool consists in a sort of web-experience to understand the European elections and keys issues, inspired by the concept of Slavery Footprint (http://slaveryfootprint.org/). Also, an interactive tool will help young people with no political background to define their political choices and to make up their minds. After answering a few questions, they will be provided with some possibilities of voting matching their own concerns. Votewatch, an organization that promotes better debates and greater transparency in EU decision-making, is also involved in the initiative and brings its expertise to the project.
To some extent, this is a new way of bringing politics at home. Wherever a young person will be, he or she will have access to politics in a more playful and entertaining manner. The League of Young Voters seems to make politics more appealing.
A cobweb-shaped structure
For the European Youth Forum, the status of the League of Young Voters was an important matter. It was indeed essential that the League became an NGO so that it could be fully independent (AISBL status under Belgian law). This independence is a double guarantee: a guarantee for relaying information without any political pressure and a guarantee for giving the partners a forum to truly be involved in the making of the project.
The role of the partners has to be highlighted. Even though the initiative is set up at the European level, it also aims at the national level. That is why the National Youth Councils, which are members of the European Youth Forum, will have to establish national Leagues of Young Voters (in local languages). Other organizations have also decided to get involved in the initiative or at least to bring some support such as IDEA, the International Debate and Education Association, will bring its expertise to organising debates and training young people in the art of debating, and international non-governmental youth organisations, also members of the European Youth Forum, which will run their own campaigns in the framework of the League. Another key partner, Euranet, a platform of European radios, will help live-stream the debates on the different European radios, whereas another IDEA (the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance) will help gather evidence and publish more in-depth research on the behavior of young people and their representation in European elections – all under the framework of the League of Young Voters.
Challenges and Perspectives
The Youth Forum is currently finalizing the design of the future website, which will be launched late May and will be followed by several large-scale events on the esplanade of the European Parliament, including a live debate between young people and political representatives and a concert…
One of the big challenges is to perpetuate this initiative, to make it last, not only at the European scale, but also at the national scale. If this first experience proves successful, then it will be copied for the local, regional and national elections. We could almost speak of a “domino effect”.
Lincoln once said that a ballot was stronger than a bullet. Hopefully the youth will seize the opportunity of the League to weigh on the political stage and to participate at the 2014 European Parliament elections.
- the European Youth Forum
- the League of Young Voters: to be announced
- International Debate Education Association
- Votewatch Europe
- IDEA (the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance)
- European Parliament
- the League of Women Voters
Source photo: © League of Young Voters - European Youth Forum.