9th Council of Europe conference of minsters responsible for youth
23 – 25 September 2012, St Petersburg
Speech by Keith Whitmore, President of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe
Deputy Secretary General,
Russian government representatives,
President of the Parliamentary Assembly,
Ladies and gentlemen,
I am very pleased to be here today and to be able to address you all during this opening ceremony. It gives me the opportunity to reconfirm the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities’ strong commitment to young people and to youth participation.
The Congress’ youth policy dates back to 1992 when the forerunner to the Congress realised that youth participation requires a commitment from local and regional authorities to build a culture where young people are able to contribute to society in valuable and meaningful ways. Young people are citizens of the towns and regions in which they live and if a culture of youth participation is to be developed, it is at these levels that it can take root and grow.
In recognition of this fact, we adopted in that year the European Charter on the Participation of Young People in Municipal and Regional Life, so we are celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year. This text recognised that the active participation of young people in decisions and actions at local and regional levels is essential if we are to build more democratic, inclusive and prosperous societies. The Congress didn’t draw up the Charter on its own, it was the result of dialogue between young people and local and regional elected representatives, a perfect example of youth participation in action.
It is clear that effective youth participation is essential to a healthy, democratic society. It is particularly relevant given the context of the apparent declining engagement of young people with traditional political processes which has been perceived over recent years. I say the “apparent” declining engagement of young people because a report which will be examined next month during the Congress’ session paints a different picture. According to this report, young people may no longer be interested in traditional politics ‑ a recent study on young people in the European Union shows that two out of ten up to the age of 30 stated in 2010 that they hadn’t voted in a political election at local, national or EU level in the past 3 years – and they are less likely to join a political party ‑ statistics show the majority of young people have no trust in political parties. And yet, as our report proves, their commitment to society and different causes remains strong.
As a politician, I must ask myself why young people are no longer voting. How can I consider myself to have been democratically elected by the majority of the population when voter abstention is at a record high in many European countries and when so few young people are voting? The Congress’s report points to a number of issues that need to be addressed before young people will return to the voting booths: the galloping youth unemployment figures, for example, or the precarious situation in which young people find themselves because of limited access to social rights.
But the report also raises the question of participation. How can I expect young people to vote for me if the policies I propose do not reflect the reality of their lives? And this is where participation comes in. Until we politicians sit down with young people and ask them what they want from our policies, we may find we can hit the targets we set ourselves but that we are missing young people’s point!
The report puts forward a number of policy proposals that will be addressed to local and regional authorities which hopefully will play a role in eliminating sources of disillusionment, for example by diminishing youth unemployment figures. The report will also invite the Council of Europe member states to include young people in their national delegations to the Congress, a very timid step as I personally would like to see a day when we have a rule requiring each member state to have a minimum number of young people in their delegations. For this to be possible, more young people must stand for election at local and regional levels, and to obtain this, young people’s voice must be heard in decision-making processes. We have a European Charter that promotes youth participation, let’s make sure we use it.
This 9th conference of youth ministers is looking specifically at the question of young people’s access to rights. As the Congress’ cooperation with the Youth Department on the Enter! Project to promote young people’s access to social rights has shown, local and regional authorities are best placed to devise and implement policies that can help achieve the social inclusion of young people quite simply because they are the governance level closest to citizens. In 2010, the Congress adopted a resolution on the integration of young people from disadvantaged neighbourhoods and I call upon everyone present, but especially young people, youth workers and youth representatives, to lobby for its implementation at local and regional levels. Again, genuine dialogue and partnership with young people are the key to coming up with relevant and effective policies which support young people’s integration into society. And the Congress is committed to continuing this cooperation.
Ladies and gentlemen, we must call into question the legitimacy of democratic institutions which are not supported by the people who are affected by the decisions they take. However, if we want young people to take part in politics and to vote, we need to look at our working methods and policies ‑ be they at national, regional or local level – because it is only when young people’s voice is heard in the making of government policies and when these policies reflect their realities, that young people’s interest in politics will be revived.
Thank you for your attention and I wish you a successful conference.