Policy-making at the European level is starting to include voices of young people in decision-making processes, according to Johanna Caminati Engström, Policy- och Advocacy Officer for Plan International EU Office and past writer for FUF.

Guest piece

EU external action gives youth a place to raise their voices

Several EU institutions are currently working to improve the inclusion and representation of youth in the European Union and especially in its external action agenda, says Johanna Caminati Engström, policy and advocacy officer at Plan International’s EU office. She highlights the importance of EU’s newly implemented work such as the first-ever Youth Action Plan and reflects on its long term impacts.

Why is youth such a crucial issue when we talk about global development issues? There are currently more than 1.8 billion young people between the ages of 10 and 24 in the world and many of them live in the Global South, where they make up a majority of the population. Many of them grapple with poverty, inequalities and human rights violations that prevent them from fulfilling their potential and taking free and well-informed decisions about their lives. It is evident that solutions to global development challenges can only be effective if they include the youth perspective, with intersectionality in mind.

Policy-making at the European level is starting to acknowledge the implications of such numbers and has started, at least on paper and sometimes in practice, to include voices of young people in decision-making processes. In 2020, the European Council adopted Conclusions on Youth in External Action. The text was an important acknowledgement of the contribution of young generations to stronger, more legitimate, peaceful and democratic societies and their role as partners in the implementation of the European Consensus on Development, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The push for focus on youth also came from the EU Commissioner for International Partnerships, Jutta Urpilainen, who oversees the European Commission’s work on international cooperation and sustainable development. As a Finnish politician and former teacher, she has been vocal since the very beginning of her mandate on the importance of youth participation in decisions that affect them. In July 2021, she announced the creation of the EU International Partnerships Youth Sounding Board, an advisory board for engaging young people in its development cooperation. After an open call that received more than 4000 applications from more than 150 countries, 25 individuals from around the world were selected to influence EU external action with their opinions. The initiative is to be replicated in partner countries through EU delegations and some have already started doing so, such as Zimbabwe and Nigeria. During the same time, Commissioner Urpilainen also announced the appointment of two Special Advisers – Dr. Ritva Reinikka on education and Bitania Lulu Berhanu on youth.

It was during her 2021 State of the Union address that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced 2022 as the “Year of European Youth”. Luckily, it became the “European Year of Youth”, promising focus on young people in Europe and beyond. In her words, a way to give back to a generation that has shown much solidarity and has lost a lot in the COVID-19 pandemic. The list isn’t finished: the European Commission has another interesting document in the pipeline, its first ever Youth Action Plan. It wants to ensure that EU external action empowers young people at political, social and economic level and help them engage in decision-making and policy making in a meaningful and inclusive way.

The message is clear: the European Union has raised its ambition when it comes to youth empowerment in EU external action, at least on paper. Will this translate into meaningful, strategic and long-term actions that will benefit young people? It’s too early to tell. EU institutions now need to deliver to prove that these are not one-time tokenistic initiatives or “tick the boxes” exercises.

In its relationships with partner countries, EU external action still relies very much on dated donor-recipient structures and dynamics. Knowing young people make up the majority of the population in many of our partner countries, giving them the space and opportunity to voice their opinions on their nations’ needs and challenges is the right thing to do.

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