Opinion & Analysis

What role for young people in the AU-EU partnership?

The AU-EU partnership encourages young people to be involved, but the reality is that they remain underrepresented at the decision-making table. Sara Gianesello and Hilda Koyier propose four ways to better consider young people’s aspirations and increase their meaningful participation in the decision-making processes of the AU-EU partnership.

Africa is one of the youngest continents in the world, with over 60% of its population being below 25 years old. Europeans between 15 and 29 years old represent around 16% of Europe’s total population.

Yet, young people in Europe and Africa are standing outside looking in when it comes to decision-making processes of the AU-EU partnership. This is problematic as it exacerbates the inability of policymakers to tackle shared challenges such as unemployment, barriers to social mobility, exclusion and inequalities.

Young people have been vocal on matters that directly touch on their present and future and have been particularly on the frontline of pro-democratic movements and of movements against climate change. However, their needs and aspirations are not reflected in policies that claim to be inclusive and responsive. Neither are they present in decision-making spaces. As key constituencies in the present and future of the partnership, bringing young people to the centre of the AU-EU partnership is key to creating fairer policies and shaping its future.

Youth in the AU-EU partnership and initiatives

Young people in Africa and Europe are affected by decisions made under the AU-EU partnership. Their involvement within the partnership is encouraged, but to date, youth remain underrepresented. Their participation takes place at the margins of the official presidential summits and has little buy-in and/or follow-up from policymakers.
The fifth AU-EU presidential summit in 2017, whose overarching theme was ‘Investing in youth for a sustainable future’, made youth feature as one of four priority areas. Besides that the outcomes of previous youth summits or initiatives, which normally occur in the lead-up to the official summits, have barely been acknowledged in the main priorities of the official presidential summits.

For instance, ahead of the sixth official AU-EU summit in February 2022, young people organised a number of events in the framework of the Youth Track of the Africa-Europe Week. In a single document, they called for, among other things, their “equal, full and meaningful participation” in the AU-EU partnership, for stronger implementation and accountability of commitments made by policymakers, and for improved concrete initiatives at the local and grassroots levels.

Nevertheless, the Joint Vision for 2030 from the AU-EU summit did not reflect these demands, highlighting that there is little buy-in from policymakers on youth priorities and that young people are not meaningfully included in international policy priorities.

Relatedly, most young people who participate in existing youth-oriented initiatives tend to be well-connected and privileged, usually from urban conglomerates and with a high level of education. The AU-EU Youth Plug-In Initiative, for example, has remained a stand-alone event. Persons from rural areas, with disabilities, recent graduates (especially girls), internally displaced people, non-digitally connected, grassroots activists and community mobilisers (especially women) are categories of youth that are more difficult to reach and to meaningfully include in the policy-making processes. While there are various reasons why this is the case, the EU and AU are trying to find ways to ensure a fairer representation of the diverse backgrounds and identities of young people in Africa and Europe.

At the moment, the AU-EU partnership lacks structural and systematic processes that would ensure that young people become meaningful participants in this formal space, where the most important decisions are taken. This means involving them in political and decision-making processes directly and intentionally, beyond their consultative and advisory roles. However, it is also true that barriers to their participation relate to cultural aspects and depend on local contexts, as concepts of youth participation and youth inclusion might have diverging interpretations in different countries.

Ways forward

Meaningful participation of young people enhances the popular ownership of the AU-EU partnership. We propose four ways to better take into account youth’s aspirations and increase their meaningful participation in the decision-making processes of the AU-EU partnership:

  • Institutionalise youth participation and leadership in the EU-AU partnership: Meaningful inclusion and engagement of youth can be strengthened by institutionalising their participation and leadership at both the high-level and institutional levels. This could be done by allowing youth representatives to participate in the official AU-EU technical meetings, summits or ministerial, for example by establishing ‘youth’ quotas or youth observer seats. This will allow young people to shape the agendas of the partnership, as well as the quality of the discussions in these high-level meetings. Such structured and formal engagement at the high level should also be replicated at the institutional level to ensure continuous youth contribution to the partnership beyond summits and events. There is some positive momentum in this regard. The AU and EU are creating their respective institutional partnerships with youth. For example, the AU has appointed a Youth Ambassador for Peace with the aim of engaging the youth in the advancement of peace and security across the African continent. The European Commission has a Youth Sounding Board that informs the design of its external actions and programming on youth. These initiatives are laudable and should continue, so that young people have a direct say over and ownership of policies that affect them.
  • Normalise youth being leaders and decision-makers and not just trainees and beneficiaries of initiatives. Rather than seeing young people only as targets and beneficiaries of training, coaching and mentorship, youth should be given the space to meaningfully contribute to the topics that affect them. Older generations (of policymakers) are also resisting change, being reluctant to genuinely empower young people. The AU and EU should facilitate intergenerational leadership and dialogue, and replace a tokenistic, top-down engagement with a more structured and youth-centric participation. A possibility would be to appoint a rotational ‘Youth champion’, who would be a senior leader that breaks barriers of youth inclusion by engaging in direct dialogue with youth and their leaders, and making sure their concerns and ideas are included in the agenda of the partnership. Being such a ‘Youth champion’ might also change the mindset of some more resistant leaders.
  • Address inequality and power imbalances along with creating economic growth as part of the actions and initiatives of the partnership. While economic growth is a central issue, the partnership should be focused on human and societal well-being. This entails addressing social justice, political rights, better (mental) healthcare, affordable housing and building a fairer and greener future. Young people in Africa and Europe are calling for and working towards these ends already. While young people should continue to advocate for attention on these issues not only at the national level but also at the partnership level, the partnership should capitalise on these already existing national movements.
  • Strengthen exchange and learning opportunities between young Europeans and Africans to build and strengthen an EU-Africa partnership beyond states. Promoting interpersonal and intercultural connections among people helps fight stereotypes and develop an identity that goes beyond one’s nationality, triggering a change in polarised narratives and building trust among a new generation of future leaders.

About the Authors

Sara Gianesello is a research assistant in ECDPM’s inclusive governance and accountability team.

Hilda Milka Koyier is a research assistant in the young international professionals (YIP) programme, working in the AU-EU relations team.

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