This is a highly welcome step towards expanding the youth dimension in European democracy, in particular among the deep ongoing discussions about the future of Europe. The move will grant millions of young people in key Member States new democratic and participation rights to influence European policy making.
As of 1 January and 1 May, respectively, Germany and Belgium will lower their age requirement to sign and launch an ECI, bringing the total number of countries that allow the support of ECIs below the age of 18 to six countries. The two countries join Estonia, Malta, and Austria who currently have the age to support an ECI to 16, as well as Greece who has the age set at 17.
The decision of the German and Belgian governments comes at a momentous time for youth. 2022 is the European Year of Youth, and there is no better way to end the year than extending the democratic rights of youth to set the European agenda on all the issues important to them. Youth is more active than ever on European and worldwide issues, considering global climate movements, breaking discussion taboos on mental health, and calls for greater digitalization.
The news comes as a success not only for the millions of young new ECI supporters (1.3 million 16-18 young Germans, for example ), but also Democracy International who advocated for lowering the age to sign an ECI during the revision process of the ECI regulation in 2017-2018 as well as encouraged the German government to lower the age during the government’s review of how to implement the ECI regulation. Thanks to the new regulation of the ECI that went into effect in January 2020, the age to support an ECI is set to the age to vote in European Parliament elections in that Member State, but Member States now have the possibility to decouple election voting age from ECI signing age, thereby lowering the age to support an ECI.
Lowering the age to support an ECI, particularly in Germany, comes with many advantages. Above all, Germany leads the EU in overall validated signatures collected by the six successful answered initiatives from 2012-2020. This could mean that, with the ECI already having a relatively stronger presence in the country with previously successful ECIs, reaching youth groups to support ECIs may pose less of a challenge than reaching youth in countries with less overall validated signatures for ECIs. We can expect that Germany will become a target country for ECIs that especially cater to issues important to young people.
There are several reasons why this trend should continue across the remaining Member States. Firstly, and practically, the pool of ECI supporters declined by over 60 million potential ECI supporters with Brexit. The one million signature threshold clearly did not decrease to reflect the consequences of Brexit, thus one way to re-balance the loss would be to introduce new potential supporters, e.g. 16 and 17 year olds across EU Member States. If the EU wants to strengthen European identity, it will depend on young people being able to get involved and take an active part in political life. Furthermore, it is not easy to collect one million signatures across seven Member States - that’s precisely why only about eleven ECIs have made it to the one million signature mark in ten years (though several are still in the signature verification and submission stage). While lowering the thresholds to sign an ECI is not feasible in the short term as it would require another reform of the regulation or even EU Treaty change, expanding the criteria of signatories by lowering the age is feasible, and it offers organizers a great opportunity to reach new target groups.
Lastly, youth ECI participation is a huge untapped potential of the ECI, with very few young organizers initiating ECIs. Since the ECI went into effect in 2012, only 8 organizers aged up to 20 years old have organized an ECI. The following age group 21-30, however, provides the most ECI organizers, with over 200 organizers since 2012 aged 21-30. Considering that the most trending issues of registered (and successful) ECIs relate to animal welfare, the environment, and biodiveristy - all issues that we’ve seen high on the priority list for youth - young people should be able to offer their support on these issues.
These groups are future voters in any case, and granting young people the right to take part in participatory democracy would equip them to be more informed voters as well as more attentive on European issues. The ECI is seeing a positive surge in use and success, and a great way to keep up this momentum is by expanding the signing criteria so that young people can have a say on EU issues, as young people will feel most of the consequences of decisions made today. While 2022 was the European Year of Youth, we hope that 2023 sees a push of youth democratic participation, particularly in the new countries joining the ECI youth block next year!
PS: we were interviewed in the Citizen Central podcast for a special European Year of Youth edition where we discussed youth participation in the ECI. Check it out here:
https://europa.eu/citizens-initiative/citizencentral-podcast_en (Spotify and SoundCloud)