CEWG Essay Competition: What if YOUth could shape Europe?

Some months ago, the Civic Education Working Group launched a competition for essays with the title: “What does the ideal political system look like?”.  Participants had to submit an essay over their ideal political system and then organise an activity within their local. The working group chose one winner, how had the possibility to win an Interrail ticket, but the ECWG chose also two honorable mentions: What if YOUth could shape Europe? by Antonis Triantafyllakis (AEGEE-Cluj-Napoca) and The Ideal puzzle – can we put back together our pieces? by Roberto Meneghetti (AEGEE-Torino). 

29745534_10156215471518879_1954397329_nWhat if YOUth could shape Europe?

Author:  Antonis Triantafyllakis, Politics Interest Group

How would the ideal political system for Europe look like? In an attempt to discover what young people think about it, we held two events, one in Paris, France, and one in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, organised by AEGEE-Paris and AEGEE-Cluj-Napoca respectively. 24 students participated in total, in a structured discussion over coffee. We asked our participants the questions below and analysed the results. We deliberately the definition of “Europe” open to interpretation, to get more diverse outcomes. We called this the “Europe Cafe”.

Is Europe democratic?

70% of the participants consider Europe democratic, because there is rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of mobility, legal protection of human rights, and every country in Europe uses the electoral process. However, a lot of concerns were shared about corruption, the lack of citizens’ involvement in the decision making processes, the influence of big corporations and the media, and the fear of the most powerful states dictating policies.

How can we improve democracy in Europe?

When it comes to the main ideas behind improving democracy in Europe, our participants focused a lot on transparency, civic education, informing more people on the values, pros and cons of democracy, involving young people more, stricter laws against corruption in politics, bringing the EU institutions closer to the citizens, increasing mobility and freedom of speech, increasing the social cohesion of the citizens, implementing an unconditional basic income scheme, letting more countries join Schengen, enabling everyone to have an equal say and use more interactive and online tools for participation.

Is democracy an ideal political system?

Most participants agreed that there can be no ideal political system per se, but democracy seems to be the best that we can currently have, despite its flaws. It can only work if everyone’s voice is equally heard and their rights protected. Concerns were shared about how power can corrupt those holding it and how that can severely affect the functioning of democracy.

What values should the ideal political system for Europe be based on?

After the introductory questions above, we started the structured discussion with this question. The values mostly mentioned were equality (with a special focus on wealth equality), transparency, freedom, justice, human rights, education, equity. Several participants also focused on the importance of environmental sustainability.

How can those values be respected in a political system for Europe? What core rules should be there to maintain them?

When it comes to upholding those values in practice, our participants focused a lot on individual responsibility and the importance of education, starting already from elementary level; “how can I understand if my rights are respected if I don’t know what my rights are?” one said. Several opinions were heard regarding the rule of law and the importance of equality and transparency. One suggested that changing laws shouldn’t be decided by a majority, but by having a quorum made of a representative of each country so voting cannot be influenced in a major way. In a similar mindset, a constitution written by the citizens was mentioned, suggesting also that a “real” european constitution should be voted, written and recognized by every european country and that referenda should be run before every big decision that would impact the European nations is taken. Another interesting suggestion regarding law was that laws should be developed in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and countries with a lower HDI index should be supported by the rest, where they lack infrastructure/consumption credit. Scrutiny of the ECB and the suggestion of a federal Europe were also mentioned. Finally, the participants also focused on the importance of human rights, promoting empathy and the need to develop a stronger social policy in Europe, in order to maintain democracy and improve citizen participation.

What types of structures would ensure the values above are respected?

Most participants mentioned having an elected government, a court of technocrats and elected assemblies, as bodies differentiated from each other. Having local groups was also deemed very important, as they can better adapt to the local realities and it was suggested that a lot of the decision making power should be delegated to local groups. Many participants considered schools and NGOs an important part of the process, due to their role in educating and giving voice to the citizens.

What would be the core aim of each structure and its basic life-line?

Ensuring fairness, efficiency and the rule of law, while creating the best conditions for people to live, seemed to be the overall idea behind the role of the structures mentioned. Having short life-lines and frequent elections of these structures was deemed important to ensure adequate representation, while sortition was also suggested for assemblies. When it comes to local groups, they should comprise of citizens in contact with citizens, discussing often on relevant topics and reporting the conclusions to assemblies, also ensuring the different points of view are communicated to any national structures. The aim should be to understand local realities, and have appropriate national responses. International institutions should collaborate with the national structures and take into account the local realities, in order to form common and inclusive policies.

What tools can you use to make sure these structures function and are representing all citizens in Europe adequately and equally?

The participants recognised the critical role digital tools can play in a broader representation of the citizens’ voice, from online surveys and referenda to online voting, to citizens having safe spaces to express their opinions, develop ideas and come up with solutions and from running monthly checks-up to an annual survey on the efficiency of the services provided. Furthermore, digital tools can encourage an increased participation of youth in politics and even identifying potential leaders among them. Apart from digital tools, participatory budgeting and the Swiss-type of referenda were mentioned to be worth considering. In general, the main focus of using tools when it comes to democracy was to achieve higher participation and involvement of the citizens in the decision making processes.

What are the main obstacles for implementing such a system in the current reality?

Education, or rather the lack thereof, especially when it comes to civic education, in order for citizens to make informed political choices, understand how the political structures function and be motivated to take an active role in politics was a common barrier mentioned by the participants. Corruption, injustice, careerist politicians, lobbies and the influence of the media were also heavily mentioned. Social, political and economical barriers between the different countries of Europe were identified, causing the countries to hold different interests and aims, and have nationalistic tendencies. The need to have a sense of belonging was mentioned as present in overcoming those obstacles.

What ideas could possibly get us there?

Once again, there was a heavy focus on education, starting from a very young age. The aim of education in that respect should be to shape citizens that are aware of the laws that affect their lives, are well informed and inspired to take action, starting from individual responsibility, and are capable of being kind and just to one another. The participants were concerned about the role of populism and climate change denial in politics, as well as leniency towards corrupt politicians and suggested more decisive actions against them. Encouraging more young people to be active in politics and even run on campaigns was also mentioned, as well as suggesting the Erasmus programme and be extended.

What can youth organisations, such as AEGEE, do to get us there?

The role youth organisations such as AEGEE can play was found to be significant, mainly focusing on civic education. Youth organisations can lead the process of educating young people about Europe and its political structures, informing them about current political affairs, enabling and encouraging youth participation, and improving critical thinking. They can play a crucial role in bridging the gap between the political institutions and the citizens, be the voice of young people and advocate for their ideas to be implemented. Finally, they can inspire more young people to join the existing political structures and institutions and bring change.

What can you as an individual do to get us there?

The participants mentioned their intentions to stay informed, take action in their local communities as well as their youth organisations, to be more involved and engaged in politics, to fight injustice, to vote, speak up, and be ready to interact with each other.

Overall conclusions from the Europe Cafe

Even though the weather didn’t help to have high participation and we had to compensate with a short online survey to get more results from the members of the two AEGEE locals, there are two key points that were consistently recurring in the answers of different questions:

Education: Education is identified as a major factor towards an “ideal” political system for Europe. The participants mentioned on several parts the importance of education as key in having informed citizens that are ready, willing and motivated to take an active role in politics. Education on how the political structures work, as well as how they can take action. Furthermore, education should include civic education and the developing of critical thinking skills among the citizens, in order for their actions to have outcomes and it should be both educational institutes and youth organisations carrying out that educational process.

Participation: The increased participation of citizens in the “ideal” political system for Europe was mentioned at several different points as absolutely necessary. The participants suggested several different ways to achieve this, from the delegation of political responsibilities to local groups closer to and more easily accessible by the citizens, to the youth organisations playing an important role in bringing Europe closer to the citizens and ensuring advocacy for their ideas, to more frequent votings and referenda, to utilising digital tools for reaching more citizens in elections, surveys, online referenda and brainstorming for ideas and solutions and finally, and perhaps more importantly, to have more young people participating in politics and policy making, and even be encouraged to run for political positions. You cannot have a Europe for citizens without the citizens being part of the process.

This wasn’t meant to be a detailed and thorough analysis of how to shape an ideal functioning political system for Europe; the idea was to check what main ideas would young people gathered informally over a cup of coffee have about it, coming from various levels of related knowledge and experience. In that regard, this essay is only the beginning of a long-term process, with increasing numbers of events in different cities, resulting in more ideas, suggestions and concrete thoughts, that the Politics Interest Group of AEGEE-Europe likes to call “Europe Cafe” and intends to keep it going for as long as young people have a voice.

What’s next? It’s up to YOUth!