AER Youth Regional Network

Fall Plenary Meeting

8 October 2012, Maison de la Région, Strasbourg

Speech by Keith Whitmore, President of the Congress

Ladies and gentlemen

I am very pleased to be here today to address for the first time the Assembly of European Region’s Youth Regional Network and I thank you for giving me this opportunity.

The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe is firmly committed to young people and to youth participation. Its youth policy dates back to 1992 when the forerunner to the Congress – Conference of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe - recognised 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. 

That is why we adopted the European Charter on the Participation of Young People in Municipal and Regional Life.  This text, which is twenty years old this year, recognised that the active participation of young people in decisions and initiatives 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 – in the Congress, we practice what we preach – this was 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 week during the Congress’s session paints a different picture.  According to our report, young people may no longer be interested in traditional politics ‑ a recent study on young people in the European Union shows that 2 out of 10 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. They also may be less likely to join a political party ‑ statistics show the majority of young people have no trust in political parties.  But as our report shows, their commitment to society and to 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 our 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 lowering youth unemployment figures.  Our 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.  But for this to be possible, more young people must stand for election at local and regional levels, and to obtain this, young people’s interest in the traditional democratic processes must be rekindled.  The way to do this is to ensure their voice is heard in decision-making processes.  And to do that, we need to see how youth participation models can be adapted to take into account the new, more informal ways of participation – such as the new social media like Twitter or Facebook – that young people are now using to speak out.  These new technologies offer young people vast opportunities for personal politics and for mobilising for political action across communities and borders but we, local and regional authorities, must find a way to link them into our decision-making processes.

But I also feel it is time we take a fresh look at the more traditional participation models, and indeed I have asked our Current Affairs Committee to look into the issue and to report back to the Congress Bureau.  Our Charter on youth participation promotes the setting up of youth councils and parliaments at local and regional levels, indeed many of you here today sit on such councils in your regions.  These structures should offer young people the possibility to express themselves freely about their concerns and to make proposals to the authorities for new or improved policies.  To ensure all young people’s concerns are defended, their composition should reflect the diversity of young citizens in the local community.  In reality, however, these structures are often criticised for paying lip service to young people or for being elitist and not representative of all of the groups of young people that exist in society.  Youth councils and parliaments are a very good idea but the way they are set up and operate can be improved.  Ideally, we would be moving towards a system of co-management, such as the one that exists in the Council of Europe’s youth sector that Mrs Mulcahy will talk about later, where young people and elected representatives sit down around the same table and take decisions on youth policy together.  The Congress’s Current Affairs Committee will be working hand in hand with the Advisory Council on Youth, the official representative body of young people in the Council of Europe, and I hope too that the Youth Regional Network and the Youth Parliament of Alsace will be able to contribute usefully to the Congress’s proposed research on the best way forward for youth participation at local and regional levels.

But this is not the only role that you, as young people representing all young people on your regional councils, can play.  Next week, the Congress will be invited to adopt the recommendations I mentioned earlier.  However, we should bear in mind that these recommendations, once adopted, do not become binding.  Local and regional authorities have no obligation to take them on board.  We, the Congress, need your help in bringing these recommendations to the attention of local, and in your case especially regional councils and parliaments throughout the 47 Council of Europe member states.  We need you to lobby your local and regional councillors so that they adopt our proposals and implement them.  We are making proposals which we hope will improve young people’s – your – lives.  We ask for your help in getting them implemented.  After all, it is in your best interest.

And I invite you to take a look at the European Charter on Youth Participation, it’s a good tool for you to get where and what you want and to get your voice heard, put it to good use in your daily practices.

Ladies and gentlemen, we must all 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 in government 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 meeting.