Youth: a shared priority for Europe and Africa

Youth in Europe and Africa is a shared priority on both continents. This blog explores the hopes and concerns expressed by some young Europeans.

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      Sixty years ago, the Treaty of Rome established the European Economic Community, paving the way for the abolition of custom duties and the creation of a single market for goods, workers, services and capital. Thirty-five years later, the Maastricht Treaty transformed the European Community into the European Union and vastly increased the competence areas of the supranational EU institutions. Ironically, 2017 marks the anniversary of the signature of these two emblematic EU treaties while being a crucial year for the future of Europe and the European Union, which is facing the uncertainties caused by the Brexit negotiations and national elections in Germany, France and the Netherlands.

      To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Maastricht Treaty, the city hosted the Yo!Fest, a multicultural event where young people came together to discuss the future of Europe. Some ECDPM policy researchers were given the opportunity to host a workshop titled “Youth: a shared priority for Europe and Africa”. The workshop invited young people – from the Netherlands and other European countries, with very diverse backgrounds from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Latin America – to reflect about the relations between Europe and Africa, voice their concerns regarding the future, and the priorities that policy and decision-makers should address.

      Why youth matters for Europe-Africa relations

      The upcoming EU-Africa summit, to be held in Cote d’Ivoire in November 2017, will focus on youth. A number of reasons make young people impossible to ignore in Europe-Africa relations and the recent Challenges Paper published by ECDPM highlights a few.


      UN data shows that by 2030 – when the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) should be achieved – the number of young people globally is projected to have grown by 7%, to nearly 1.3 billion people. Youth is growing particularly rapidly in Africa, and by 2030 it is projected to have increased by 42%. While African countries experience youth bulges, the European Union member states witness a contracting youth population and ageing societies. In addition, the growth will happen particularly in the cities, as two-thirds of world’s population is expected to live in urban environments by 2050.

      Cities are spaces of transformation. This concentration of – mostly young – masses in urban spaces could have deep effects, for better or for worse, on social, political and economic systems. In recent years, some public spaces have become the symbol of revolutions and political change, such as Tahrir Square for the Arab Spring or Maidan Square in Kiev for the Ukrainian revolution in 2014.

      Politically disconnected or engaged youth?

      On average, data from Afrobarometer and from the Eurobarometer shows that young generations are participating less in politics, and voter turnout is lower than their elders’. There is a tangible disconnection between leaders and citizens. Some African countries have ageing leaderships in power for 25 years or more and, in some countries, more than 80% of the population has never witnessed a leadership change. On the other side of the Mediterranean, the generational gap might be less strong when it comes to leaders, yet there are remarkable differences between the various age groups when it comes to European citizenship. One instance where this discrepancy has manifested itself is the Brexit vote, when youth voted massively to stay in the EU, whereas they elders did not. Yet, young Africans and Europeans have been the driving forces behind political and social movements calling for democracy and social and political change, such as during the Arab Spring, the Balai Citoyen in Burkina Faso, Y’en a marre in Senegal, the “Fees must fall” protests in South Africa, and Podemos in Spain.

      Unemployment and job creation

      In Africa, protests have been a response to the condition of “waithood” in which youth find themselves due to unemployment, fragile employment and socio-economic exclusion. Youth unemployment rates in the Middle East and North African regions remain the highest in the world, while the employment situation for women has been worsening. Unemployment or lack of sustainable incomes also drives youth to migrate to Europe and within Africa. For this reason, the European Union is increasingly trying to promote jobs and growth by means of external and development policies.

      High hopes are sometimes placed on the entrepreneurship and innovation of the African youth. The two have almost become a panacea for all sorts of problems, whereas some deep structural problems are not solvable through entrepreneurship only. In addition, many young people still aspire to wage labour and more ‘traditional’ white-collar jobs. In fact, this age group is particularly vulnerable on both continents.

      Europe’s youth, while enjoying a privileged environment of relative peace and prosperity, is not immune to these concerns. Since 2013, the EU’s Youth Guarantee Initiative aims to improve the access to education, employment and training for young people in Europe. Yet, a third of Europe’s youth is at risk of poverty and social exclusion and the percentage of young people that is not currently involved in either education, employment or training can reach up to 20% in some Southern European countries.

      Conflicts, crisis, and peacebuilding

      A quarter of the world’s political conflicts took place in Africa in 2015. Young people are the first victims of conflicts as well as a source of recruitment for organised crime and radical groups such as those in Mali, Somalia and Nigeria. Youth radicalisation is also a concern in Europe as terrorist attacks in 2016 have shown, and the EU developed a strategy to respond to and prevent violent extremism.

      The causes of radicalisation are, however, multiple and complex. Research in Europe shows several factors behind youth radicalisation, such as the loss of cultural references and values and the social isolation of some groups of youngsters. In Mali, the fear for one’s own survival and protecting income-generating activities are among the factors pushing youth to join extremist movements, rather than purely religious and economic motivations.

      At the same time, youngsters are also actors on the peacebuilding stage, and the motor behind the renewal of the social fabric in conflict-affected regions.

      What do young Europeans think?

      The complexities of issues affecting youth are evident, as well as the need for contextualised and local responses. At the same time, young people’s needs and aspirations should be taken into account when taking decisions and formulating policies that have implications for their lives. When asked to reflect on challenges and solutions for youth in Europe and Africa, the young participants of the workshop came forth with rich and various responses.
      The following points capture and synthesise some takeaways from the different breakout groups.

      Young people do not support the prevalent discourses on migrants and refugees, which are often dictated by political games, sensationalistic media, and fear of the unknown and can lead to the disastrous consequences seen with the Brexit vote. Exchange platforms like Erasmus – but also sports – are vehicles to promote a mindset shift and co-creation among youth from different backgrounds. In addition, concrete actions to welcome and integrate refugees are needed.

      Furthermore, mutual perceptions of Europeans and Africans need to change, to tackle problems together. Hence, while the EU can and should invest in Africa, the dependence of Africa on external assistance leading to the creation of unbalanced power relationships needs to be avoided. In this context, fostering mutual exchanges is of paramount importance, and an essential condition to build mutual trust.

      Gender and social, cultural, and economic backgrounds matter, when it comes to finding jobs or moving up the ladder in terms career promotion according to the young people who took part in the workshop, who openly deplore the existence of racism and sexism in European societies. The youth is aware of the risk to incur in discrimination and exclusion, and hence indirectly to be trapped in ghettos. Action to tackle these multidimensional inequalities is urgently needed.

      Youth tends to feel ‘European’ and connected to other young Europeans, while feeling increasingly disconnected from the institutions of the European Union. In addition, many European citizens lack a clear understanding of the European Union and this leads them to buy into Euroscepticism. This is why primary and secondary education has a crucial role to play in fostering European citizenship, and in connecting the youth with European politics and the EU. In turn, the European Union and its institutions need to communicate better and engage more with the European youth, including about the current limits of their power.

      To tackle these challenges, a new generation of politicians and activists should emerge, with a different way of organising itself and able to take advantage of new technologies to engage and connect. Youth organisations and fora have also a bigger role to play in policy-making.

      In this year of key milestones for Europe and Africa, ECDPM will further engage on these and other issues that matter for the African and European youth, which need to be further discussed in and beyond policy-making circles.

      The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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