26th session of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe
Is there a real place for young people in local and regional democracy?
Young people are sometimes accused of lacking interest in politics but they are actually prepared to get involved provided that they can express themselves using different means to those of their elders. A debate on 25 March 2014 on the place of young people in local and regional democracy opened a series of several discussions on the role of young people in society taking place throughout the Congress session, and enabled three young people to describe their activities and clarify their aspirations.
At 22, Martina Jöbstl is Austria's youngest regional elected representative and sits in the Regional Parliament of Salzburg, having been introduced to democracy and participation, like many of her compatriots, through her involvement in school councils at lower and upper secondary school. “It was there that I learnt how to take part in public life”, she said, while arguing that young people could “rejuvenate society through their actions but only provided that they do not focus solely on youth issues but deal with all the issues which concern the entire population”. In her view young people expected straight talking and clear answers and this was another way of reconciling them with politics. “Of course, people sometimes think I’m a secretary because too many people still think that politicians are all older men, but I have learnt to make people accept me" – and this was the case, she said, with many other young people – a fact that, in her view, reflected a revival of politics in Austria.
“Stop speaking for us and listen to us instead!”
Jacob Sakil is a former Young Mayor of the London Borough of Lewisham in the United Kingdom, a post in which he learnt to present people’s views to decision-makers; and he still helps to put their ideas into practice today. In this highly multicultural borough, half of the 11 to 17 year-olds took part in the vote for the Youth Mayor, which was a much higher figure than the adult vote. This was the proof, in his opinion, that young people expressed themselves if they were given the chance and that they had a lot to say. They were directly concerned by education and employment but also by problems of health and stress. If they really wanted to give young people a chance, adults should stop speaking on their behalf and start listening to them.
However, young people also get involved in politics via less conventional channels, particularly the Internet, which, “while not replacing direct contact, does make it possible to reach a large number of people wherever they are”, as was explained by the Portuguese “online activist”, Adriana Delgado, who is involved in particular in the Council of Europe’s No Hate Speech Movement, along with a number of gender equality projects. “It is not enough", she said, “to increase sources of information; we also need to know how to use them and make our voices heard. New technologies have to form part of a broader range of activities”.
Access to education and employment are priorities for young people
“Local and regional elected representatives must understand the language and needs of young people”, said Emil Boc, Mayor of Cluj-Napoca, a Romanian city which will be the European Youth Capital in 2015. Many youth associations have been working with the municipality for the success of this event, for which it has adopted a philosophy of sharing and the motto "share". At the same time, the city has been taking a range of measures to engage more with young people and has set itself the priority of promoting access to education and employment. Their aspirations are also met through practical measures, such as extending digital projects or inviting inhabitants to plant trees and improve their living environment. However, Mr Boc also pointed out to young people that "democracy and Europe are their future and are means of securing peace".
Following the statements, several Congress members described their own local schemes to encourage dialogue and participation. In Poland, for example, 130 towns currently had "municipal youth councils” while in North Rhine-Westphalia (Germany) there was a regional youth parliament, which made it possible to make “politics more attractive for young people".