Re-thinking citizenship education: bringing young people back to the ballot box

European Youth Insights is a platform provided by the European Youth Forum and the European Sting, to allow young people to air their views on issues that matter to them. The following entry is written by John Lisney, the Coordinator of the League of Young Voters in Europe.

John Lisney is the Coordinator of the League of Young Voters in Europe.

John Lisney is the Coordinator of the League of Young Voters in Europe.

Reading media reports in the aftermath of the European elections in May 2014, you would have thought that the main narrative in European politics today is the growing support for populists with an anti-EU agenda, such as Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen. The relentless rise of Euroscepticism should indeed cause us to reflect on why this trend has come about, and what could be done to reverse it.

Many in Europe believe that it is principally driven by the effects of the economic crisis on Europeans’ living conditions. As soon as European economies will begin to improve, these issues will disappear. However, a brief analysis of young people’s attitudes to politics in general suggests that there are more complex factors at work. What should concern European policy-makers is not so much the rise in Eurosceptic voices, but rather the alarming vacuum that is left by young people’s no-show in elections across Europe.

Young generations of Europeans apparently show little interest in politics. Yet again, we were the great abstainers in the recent European elections (72% of 18-24 year-olds did not vote). Young people also don’t trust politicians. In most pre-election polls in Europe, young people generally express the view that voting will have no impact on their daily lives and that they don’t trust politics in general.

Yet our absenteeism from elections contributes significantly to our political marginalisation. In a way, we are the victims of our political choices. Aside from the opportunity that this provides to populist parties, young people’s no-show gives no incentive to mainstream political parties to have serious policies on issues that interest us, such as how to provide quality jobs for young people or the cost of education. Our research at the League of Young Voters and interviews with political parties show that, indeed, we are not a key target group.

What can be done to overturn this dangerous trend? Expensive information campaigns and calling upon our sense of duty will certainly not change anything. What is needed is the acknowledgment by all, political parties, education providers and civil society that the widening gap between young people and democracy is a joint responsibility.

This starts with more investment in citizenship education across Europe. Citizenship education can lead to a better, more critical understanding of one’s role in democratic life. Citizenship education should not, however, be seen as an opportunity for indoctrination; it should not be about pushing an ideal of democracy that is not recognised as relevant to our everyday lives. Citizenship education needs to be based on young people’s own terms and should start with the objective of instilling the confidence and competences necessary to shape and contribute to the decisions that matter to us.

As young people, we are far from having the confidence of being agenda-setters. Citizenship education can change that, by learning to be politically savvy — not just as individuals, but also as a community of young people. It should include partnerships between providers of formal education — such as schools, which remain the main place where education takes place, and which have the most likelihood of having an impact on the largest number of youth — and non-formal education — such as youth organisations, which unlike most schools, are democratic organisations themselves and through which we can learn the principles of democracy.

More and more research on the topic of youth political participation suggests that young people’s political participation is not so much in decline, as in a process of transformation. There are other ways of trying to influence political processes and policies, which young people seem to increasingly prefer. These include “e-participation” tools, discussing issues on social networks, and signing e-petitions. We mobilise behind specific causes and tend to believe in bottom-up participation.

We need to learn to use these skills for our own political benefit, and demand more of our political representatives. Only in this way can we not only learn to mobilise and be so loud that we cannot be ignored, but we also learn to think long-term: which leaders are likely to act in our long-term interest? Who is proposing short-term gimmicky solutions? Who is using populist rhetoric and playing blame games?

Citizenship education, if it includes these new trends and methods and links them to real political discussions and processes, can bring youth back to the ballot box.

Read the relevant full publication from the League of Young Voters: Addressing youth absenteeism in European elections

 

You too, write about Youth & Participation for the European Sting, react on the following topics:

1. What would make young people vote: Citizenship education?

2. Vote at 16? Are youngsters of 16 & 17 years old mature enough to vote?

3. Is” e-participation” real participation?

4. Why are so many young people voting for UKIP in the UK?

5. The Front National, first party for the young French?

Send your reactions (200 words) to press@youthforum.org

 

About the author

John Lisney is the Coordinator of the League of Young Voters in Europe. Set up in 2013 by the European Youth Forum, the League is as a politically neutral initiative and alliance of organisations that share the same objective of improving young people’s participation in democratic life.

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