Young people engaged in the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) want politicians to make bold decisions about Europe while taking future generations into account, according to Viola Bianchetti from Europe’s largest network of youth organisations.
Interview with Viola Bianchetti, Project Manager at European Youth Forum.
You are coordinating the “The 25 Percent Project” dedicated to engaging young people in CoFoE. Could you describe its goals, impact so far and future prospects?
The first goal of the “The 25 Percent Project” is to engage young people in CoFoE. The idea is to make them understand what the Conference is and how they can participate in it; even more importantly – why political and civic participation is crucial in general. We do this through training, online and in-person events and online communication. We have also developed a toolkit on participation for young people to get more information on how they can make a change in their communities and start a project or a campaign about something they care about.
The second goal is to gather the views of young people and bring them to decision-makers within CoFoE and beyond. We have collected some 6,000 ideas on the future of Europe submitted by young people from 30 EU and non-EU countries. All the proposals gathered have been now analysed and compiled in a report, which will be the basis for the next step of our project. On 24 February, we are gathering around 100 young people who will draft policy recommendations based on the report, to be presented to the members of the CoFoE Plenary.
Going forward, we would like to continue it beyond the Conference because one of its main purposes is to engage and empower young people and to give them skills, tools, knowledge and connections to participate in society and make a change. We think this will be increasingly relevant ahead of the European Elections in 2024.
Are there any recurring themes among the 6,000 ideas on the future of Europe you collected?
Broadly speaking, young people want politicians to make bold decisions and not be afraid of radical change, while taking the future generation into account. The most prominent topics are climate change and sustainability, social justice and equality. What is interesting, education really emerges as a transversal theme and is seen as a tool to trigger social change. The people who participated were also in favour of a stronger Europe and deeper integration, although this could be a selection bias – because it’s a consultation on the future of Europe.
You mentioned the efforts you put into engaging the ‘non-usual suspects’. What are your tips on engaging young people, especially ones from underrepresented groups, in deliberative democracy?
It’s a challenge for everyone but also something worth doing. We do in-depth work on political education and civic participation because our main target group is young people with fewer opportunities and youth coming from marginalised groups. What we noticed is that when you are working with young people that are not used to being engaged and to participate at large, they need more time and in-depth work to understand why participation matters.
In addition, it’s important to go to them rather than expecting them to come to you. Visiting schools is a good example. Usually students are very happy about having opportunities to learn something new and having conversations with people working for European organisations.
Apart from schools, the good outreach destinations can also be youth clubs or sport clubs. It’s important to meet young people there rather than expecting them to attend your events. Maybe second time, after you have done this outreach work, you can invite them back and have a greater audience. Also, relying on local organisations is important because they know best what the needs and interests of their target groups are.
What is your assessment of CoFoE so far, especially in terms of engaging youth? What lessons on youth engagement can we draw from it?
We welcome the fact that youth have been prominently involved in the structures of the Conference. We have also seen that young people have been very active in the CoFoE Citizens’ Panels. Moreover, it looks like the younger age groups are well-represented on the Conference Digital Platform.
The challenge for the Conference, however, is engaging citizens and young people beyond the Panel participants. The timeline is just too short and if you want to engage citizens, you need to foresee a much longer process of making them aware of the EU, the Conference and the discussed topics. Many youth organisations which are members of the European Youth Forum didn’t really prioritise CoFoE because the time frame was too tight and they didn’t have enough resources to follow it. Motivating young people to engage with the EU is generally difficult, so if one wants to do it in the right way, they really need more time and resources.
So your tips for engaging the ‘non-usual suspects’ could be also shared with the EU institutions implementing CoFoE?
Absolutely. It’s also important to support civil society organisations in doing this work because institutions need to realise that it’s very hard for them to reach those target groups directly just because of their structure. Civil society plays a very important role in connecting with citizens. At the same time, we should remember that people must be given the time and resources to get engaged.
What role would you see for the European youth in the CoFoE follow-up, especially given that 2022 is the European Year of Youth?
We believe it’s very important to make sure that whatever comes out of the Conference is followed up on. The specific recommendations coming from the Citizens’ Panels must receive at least some kind of feedback to ensure there is a minimum level of accountability of institutions towards the citizens that have participated in the process. We think it’s very important for the credibility of the EU and the CoFoE exercise.
Young people talking about participation and engagement tend to point out how they are often asked for opinions and ideas but then nothing happens with them. This creates a feeling of disengagement and the opposite of what we would like to achieve as a result of CoFoE. Civil society plays an important role just in keeping politicians and the EU institutions accountable for the outcomes of the Conference.
Furthermore, I also think the Conference can be an example that can be improved and replicated. And again, in this scenario, we would definitely like to see a stronger dialogue with civil society rather than relying only on direct democracy. The two approaches need to go hand in hand to ensure the representation of different groups.
There is a risk that the CoFoE proposals are ignored or manipulated by some decision-makers. What should be the response of youth civil society if this happens?
There is definitely a risk that the Conference is hijacked by some political forces. In case of citizen proposals being ignored or manipulated, a feeling of disappointment with the EU could emerge among citizens. To prevent this, we need a commitment to the CoFoE follow-up process before the Conference ends, with a clear indication of who is concretely responsible for implementing the specific proposals.