Non-Governmental Organisations

From participation to influence: can youth revitalise democracy?

Strasbourg, 3-5 November 2014


Democracy is played out in the political institutions of society, but also in the multiple arenas where people come together: formal and informal education, the work place, sport, culture, civil society and increasingly, in social media via the Internet. Democracy requires firm and unshakeable foundations, but must be transmitted and renewed from generation to generation. 

Today, we witness among young people a rising abstention from electoral participation and party politics, distrust in mainstream media, and sometimes violent rejection of traditional embodiments of political power.  In transition democracies, young people are at the forefront of movements of popular rejection of corruption and electoral fraud, but are conversely marginalised in the process of democratic consolidation. In times of economic crisis, young people are increasingly faced with exclusionary barriers in the “everyday arenas”. How to increase any democratic participation of youth through the labour market when employment opportunities decrease? Is education a real promise for prosperity and security, and is it a good vehicle for inclusion that extremely qualified generations now have less guarantee of access to the labour market, leading some to speak of a “lost generation”?

There is a disparity between young people’s aspirations on the one hand and forms of engagement and the limited opportunities for influence on the other hand. There is also a disparity between the ideals of young people – such as social justice and equality – and the priorities of democratic decision-making. There is a mismatch between the long perspective youth desires to influence in order to shape their future and a pressure to focus on short-term obligations.

Nonetheless, potential for youth influence and participation in democracy exists. Many young people are engaged at community and grassroots levels and express strong civic ideals and commitment. A wide range of formal participation opportunities for youth exists – elected student representatives, local youth councils, youth parliaments, youth branches of political parties etc, but their impact is relatively weak. It is crucial to enhance youth democratic involvement, not only in terms of participation (quantity) but also in terms of influence (quality). It would be important to identify cases where such structures are genuine vectors of democratic participation rather than an alibi, and to explore the conditions which make them successful. New ways of socialising and organising are being forged and pioneered by the young via on-line media and social networks, from a perspective which may challenge established models of democratic governance. Moreover, there are a number of successful political figures deeply engaged in the existing structures of representative democracy who try to improve the system “from within”.

All these perspectives should be explored in order for societies to mobilise the potential of youth as actors of positive change.

The SWFD 2014 will engage with young people and with decision-makers and opinion-formers in a reflection on these patterns of exclusion and involvement and will explore new ways of engaging young people in re-visioning the democratic arenas of today.


The Strasbourg World Forum for Democracy is an annual gathering of leaders, opinion-makers, civil society activists, representatives of business, academia, media and professional groups to debate key challenges for democracies worldwide. The insights gathered during the World Forum meetings inform the work of the Council of Europe and its numerous partners in the field of democracy and democratic governance.

Young people1 are as diverse as the general population in terms of political orientation, identities, and socio-economic backgrounds – diversity which represents similar challenges in terms of living together, solidarity and inclusion as in the adult world. What binds youth together is the stage in the life cycle which determines a certain difference in priorities, which are often under-acknowledged in the political arena.

The attitudes of youth to democracy and their opportunities for participation and influence vary across the world in relation to the degree of maturity or “quality of democracy”. Youth movements, for example, play a different role in fragile or aspiring democracies, than in established, institutionally mature ones.

Studies show that young people are not disinterested with political issues and participation, but are dissatisfied with the way in which political life is conducted and consider that those representing young people in Parliament, in student unions, in youth councils and national youth organisations are not sufficiently representative of youth in their diversity. Grassroots and community-based youth organisations are often more successful at motivating participation from a range of young people, but have limited resources and less access to power and decision-making. Young people are not disengaged, but they feel that the political ‘offer’ does not match their concerns, ideas, and ideal of democratic politics.

The distance between young people and democratic institutions is a matter of concern. Not only young people’s de facto exclusion (or self-exclusion) from political party leadership and electoral participation leads to distortions in political arbitrations and inter-generational resource distribution but they also set a trend towards an ever greater democratic deficit and de-legitimation of democratic institutions. Civic engagement through volunteering, grassroots organisations and social enterprises enhances youth participation while social and economic exclusion undermine political engagement.

The “end of power” theorists argue that in today’s globalised, connected, instantaneous, crowd-sourced world, formal institutions in all areas are steadily losing power. However, new institutional arrangements which would embody the distributed, liquid “people power” that corresponds to the way in which young people learn, communicate and create the internet age, have not yet emerged.
A free, accessible, open internet is critical for society and democracy today but there are growing attempts by some governments to limit internet freedom. It is important to ensure that young people have a say on decisions which affect the network, as it affects democracy, and the future of their lives as well.

Young people feel particularly strongly about the long-term challenges and strategic orientations for their societies such as environmental sustainability, social justice, corruption and equal opportunities. However, they have relatively little influence on these strategic choices. Furthermore, young people who are excluded from employment and education tend to be also marginalised politically and socially. While exclusion may not lead to violent conflict, the outcome of young people living in a “parallel universe” in terms of wasted talent, potential and opportunities is significant.
The challenge is to distil a clear agenda from a multitude of specific concerns. Without this, youth protests may remain just this – protests, and not a constructive action for change.

It is crucial to engage youth in the process of the search for new models and relationships between governance structures and the wider society. The Forum will explore initiatives and structures to successfully address the reasons for youth exclusion and create conditions for real youth influence.
The Council of Europe has a very strong youth sector with a wide network and many partners on a global scale. The Council of Europe Schools of Political Studies, which make up the largest group of participants, can also contribute usefully to the debate as they gather young political leaders and elite in their respective countries. The involvement of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in the Forum will ensure a dialogue between the European political class and these youth actors.


The Forum will involve parliamentarians, representatives of governments, political parties, decision-makers and opinion-makers from business, civil society, media and academia, representatives of youth organisations, and activists in democratic movements.

The members of the Council of Europe Schools of Political Studies, including emerging leaders in the Council of Europe newer member States and neighbourhood countries, will be actively involved in the Forum. The Conference of INGOs, the Parliamentary Assembly, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities will be strongly engaged, as well as other CoE structures as necessary. The Council of Europe Youth Sector will play an important role in the Forum preparation. The Forum is expected to gather up to 1400 participants.


The Forum will consist of plenary sessions for high-level addresses; keynote introductions and joint debates/summing up, as well as a series of smaller working sessions (labs) to address specific issues.
An open call will be issued to identify successful actions for youth citizenship and participation, and new governance solutions to youth democratic inclusion. The ideas will be briefly presented in plenary sessions and further developed and challenged in labs. “Ideas trees” will be displayed outside the meeting rooms where participants can glue a red or green leaf to show if the idea has convinced them. The trees will represent both a crowd-sourced art installation, and a visual illustration of the most appealing ideas. Cartoonists will illustrate the sessions live.

The forum will also include and open space format to enable spontaneous discussions, fresh ideas and new alliances to emerge.

The Forum will end with an open microphone session for participants to share insights or initiatives they wish to develop back home.

Working languages

Interpretation between English and French will be provided with a possibility for other languages depending on the need.

Visibility and public engagement

In order to ensure wider participation and outreach, the Forum plenary sessions will be transmitted live (and subsequently in recording) on the Internet, a live twitter thread will be displayed; an active Facebook page will be managed. Depending on available resources, smaller sessions will also be recorded for Internet transmission.

A number of journalists and student journalists will be invited to report on the Forum. The possibility of partnerships with key media worldwide will be considered.

Results and follow-up

Apart from providing an opportunity for meaningful exchanges and networking, the Forum will raise awareness of new ideas on changing democracy and governance and pave the way for future work by the Council of Europe and other organisations in the fields of youth and democracy.

Possible partners

In addition to the Council of Europe, including the Parliamentary Assembly, and the main Forum partners – the French government, the Alsace Region and the City of Strasbourg, other organisations/platforms will be invited to provide input, advice, suggestions for speakers and participants, and possibly financial contributions. In particular, long-term partnership will be sought with the European Parliament.

Activists of youth and protest movements from around the world will be contacted to participate, as well as leaders of youth movements, young members of political parties and party leaders, elected officials, young business leaders and media professionals.

Preparatory process

A preparatory group including the Council of Europe Forum Secretariat and main partners, as well as the PACE, CM, Congress and the INGO Conference will meet regularly to oversee the overall content & organisational preparation.

An internal Council of Europe Task Force involving DGI, DGII, PO, DPA, Policy planning, SecCM, PACE, Congress, GR-DEM Chair, DC, will discuss the involvement of staff and inclusion of CoE on-going work/results, in the Forum, as well as follow up.

Progress will be regularly reported to SG/Private Office, PACE Bureau, the Senior Management Group and the GR-DEM.

1 In sociological terms “youth” refers to the period before a person gains independence from parents through stable employment and leaving the parental household. In a global perspective, youth is highly heterogeneous with regard to socio-economic and educational backgrounds. The official age limits for youth vary as well: the United Nations’ define youth for “statistical consistency” as the age period between 15-24 years, the EU Youth in Action programme targets people between 13 and 30; for the African Youth Charter “youth” means “every person between the ages of 15 and 35 years”; the European Youth Foundation operates with a similar age limit.