Illustration by Daniela Nunes


Democracy Here | Democracy Now – Youth taking action to revitalise democracy

 by Alice Bergholtz and Ruxandra Pandea 


One of the latest reports on the state of democracy in the world concludes: “Advances in global levels of democracy made over the last 35 years have been wiped out. 72% of the world’s population – 5.7 billion people – live in autocracies by 2022” (Democracy Report 2023). This harsh conclusion begs the questions: is democracy a lost cause? How did we get here? Where to look for hope, motivation and guidance for action? How to resist the temptation of cynicism?

The Democracy Here | Democracy Now campaign was launched as a response to similar warnings given by both the Secretary General of the Council of Europe and by youth organisations in 2020 and 2021. Initiated by the Advisory Council on Youth and launched in March 2022 with a span of six months, the campaign aimed to strengthen the role of young people in processes targeting a revitalisation of democracies in Europe, particularly focusing on the trust of young people in democratic institutions and processes. It focused on three themes: access to rights, meaningful youth participation and digitalisation.

This article could close here. The Youth Department of the Council of Europe ran a campaign to revitalise democracy with young people in 2022. In 2023, democracy was in a worse shape. In the campaign and its follow-up there is failure too, but more importantly there is learning and reason to hope, food for thought and direction for action. So, take a chance, and read on.


 Bits of history 

In 2020, when the first discussions about a possible campaign involving the youth sector started, the Advisory Council consulted youth organisations and young people online. The survey results revealed that a common concern was the quality and capacity of participation of young people, and participation in general in our societies.

The respondents’ second concern was the precarious situation in which youth organisations were finding themselves, being economically unable to sustain themselves in the pandemic and very much targeted by measures that restricted their capacity to advocate, act and mobilise young people. This echoes what studies on the state of democracy highlight: attacks on civil society are a key feature of all processes of autocratisation (Democracy Index 2022).

By October 2021, the members of the Advisory Council managed to convince the governmental representatives in the co-management system of the youth sector that the campaign should be launched in 2022 to be run primarily at national and local level, with one flagship activity in Strasbourg in the summer, the Youth Action Week. The campaign was also the way in which the youth sector of the Council of Europe chose to mark its 50th anniversary.

At national level, the campaign was implemented with the support of youth civil society and governments, which nominated national contact points with the role to mobilise young people, to adapt the objectives to national realities and to co-ordinate action. Additional support came through a special call for activities at national and international level launched by the European Youth Foundation, through which seven international and 34 pilot activities were supported.

The Youth Action Week: Democracy Now! – the flagship activity of the campaign – brought together 450 young activists from Europe and beyond to discuss the challenges to democracy from a youth perspective, as well as to propose solutions from their practice and work with young people. The four-day activity led to the drafting of the Call for Action – a document with 50 proposals around each of the themes of the campaign and peace, to be implemented by young people, youth civil society, member states and the Council of Europe. The Call for Action was endorsed by both the Joint Council on Youth and the Committee of Ministers.

Other important events included a conference co-organised by the German Federal Youth Council and the German Bundestag on the current crisis, conferences on youth participation, side events to the Parliamentary Assembly, development of educational materials and multiple interventions. 

In October 2022, the Joint Council on Youth decided to continue the work initiated through the campaign for at least another year in the form of a project entitled Youth Revitalising Democracy.


 What do we learn? 

The implementation of the campaign in 2022 brought to the forefront of political attention the core issues of democracy, human rights, youth participation, the impact of digitalisation and peace. While it was not planned to tackle the connection between democracy and peace, the Russian Federation’s war against Ukraine put this issue on the campaigners’ agenda, strengthening the urgency of action for democracy and serving as a warning that war can also be viewed as the culmination of a process of backsliding.

The general understanding of a growing gap between young people, but also citizens in general, and democratic institutions and processes is shared among those who took part in the campaign. The causes of this gap are debated: some tend to blame young people for their disinterest in the political affairs of the community, questioning their interest, will and capacity to be engaged and to contribute. While there might be some truth in this, both the campaign and academic research give a more nuanced explanation of this perceived lack of participation. Young people are interested, engaged and capable of contributing as well as partaking in decision making, provided the proper conditions are met. Several challenges arise:

  • from a rather complicated political system where it becomes harder to understand the direct consequences of one’s participation, there is a tendency among young people to engage in topic-focused and active forms of participation (petitions, climate strikes, etc.) and disengage from more traditional forms of participation;
  • the general lack of representation of young people on electoral lists and in electoral programmes, barriers to exercising the right to vote, both of which are age related, and also economic barriers. As the European Youth Forum rightly points out, only 5% of parliamentarians in Europe are under 30;
  • a lack of spaces and structures that support participation and consistent quality education (both formal and non-formal). As the Call for Action hints in the first proposal: youth-led youth councils do not exist in most of the municipalities in the Council of Europe;
  • too many experiences of failed participation make it harder to trust that one is not part of youthwashing.

Fantapolitica! showcased that through a rather small project they could support young people to stand in local elections, with four elected candidates. Similarly, Ljubljana Pride managed to mobilise the LGBTQI+ youth vote in the 2022 Slovenian elections, raising awareness on how to examine politicians and their plans from a human rights perspective. The German Federal Youth Council successfully advocated to PACE and the German Parliament and co-organised events together, with the two key institutions raising politicians’ awareness of youth concerns.

Young people are ready to engage in the political arena and reclaim their political role in society. Nevertheless, they need support that ranges from recognition of their capacities, investment in the learning process both through education and structures of participation (e.g. youth councils, student councils, youth organisations). New forms of participation by young people (including disruptive ones) need recognition at least at the level of the claims made. Also, national authorities need to invest in research and up-to-date information on these forms and their impact on democratic societies, not from a protective perspective, but rather looking at the innovative potential brought in. Eventually, democratic systems need to adapt and be responsive to new forms of communication and engagement. This is not the time to let young people merely be receivers of messages of the importance of democracy, but rather be agenda setters, and present at the decision-making table.

Human rights respect and fulfilment are an essential condition for democracy. Young people involved in the campaign persistently raised the importance of both civil and political rights (often the only ones taken into account when discussing democracy), as well as social and economic ones.

Quality human rights and citizenship education is essential to engaging and motivating young people to see the links between democracy and human rights and to take action. This is also one of the main ways in which the democratic system is learnt and reflected upon by young people. This is demonstrated by virtually all activities in the campaign and the Call for Action, and further strengthened by the conclusions of the Third review of the implementation of the Council of Europe Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education.

Digitalisation and its impact on society and democracy is a topic on the agenda of both international organisations and member states. While a lot of benefits can be reaped, dangers such as online surveillance, behaviour tracking, digital gap or discrimination generated by algorithmic bias are all realities that young people are confronted with. What also stands out from the experience of the campaign is that while young people are perceived as experts of the “online”, that does not necessarily translate into digital citizenship skills, or capacity to take part in decision making in relation to AI or internet governance. Moreover, as digitalisation also involves the private sector, systems of decision making and monitoring are harder to grasp and use.


 What next? 

The campaign arguably shed light on how young people feel, think and envisage change, with a view to revitalising democracy. It brought a lot of initiative, enthusiasm and also political attention to the youth sector. The Joint Council on Youth decided in October 2022 to continue the work initiated by the campaign through a project entitled Youth Revitalising Democracy, which has at its core the Call for Action issued by the participants in the Youth Action Week.

The project aims to:

  • provide support to young people, youth civil society and national and local authorities to uphold and expand the standards and practices of democratic youth participation, particularly at local and national levels;
  • develop and support activities of democratic citizenship and human rights education that respond to the current challenges faced by democratic systems (e.g. the need to develop digital citizenship competences) and integrate new developments (i.e. digital participation);
  • raise awareness of the barriers to youth participation, particularly the discrimination and racism faced by minority youth, and advocate for equality and inclusion of all young people.

In this framework, the key directions of action for 2023 included:

  • advocacy for the implementation of the Call for Action, including seminars and research on the role of local youth councils and youth political participation, common action months and days, co-operation with the key institution of the Council of Europe;
  • training and capacity building, including training for activists and development of educational materials;
  • support for processes and activities at national and regional level.

This campaign was needed as a platform to share, learn and envision what we want our democratic societies to look like. It primarily galvanised the efforts of the young people and youth civil society. However, to make the Call for Action a reality, to reverse this trend of autocratisation, action is needed from all actors in society, particularly political actors. To revitalise democracy, youth can lead the way in starting a conversation in the public sphere, however this way should include all young people and all members of society. But young people alone cannot affect all change, and eventually it remains the main responsibility of national authorities to deliver democracy. As the participants of the Youth Action Week state in the preamble of the Call for Action, this “must start with the respect and thorough implementation and regular monitoring of existing Council of Europe standards, and lead to their further development”.


To find more information about the local, national and international campaign activities and access its resources, visit the Democracy Here |Democracy Now website.


Defiance in the face of autocratization, Democracy Report 2023, Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem Institute), University of Gothenburg, March 2023, available at, accessed 3 April 2023.

Global outlook: Democracy Index 2022: frontline democracy and the battle for Ukraine, Economist Intelligence, March 2023, available at, accessed 3 April 2023.









 Issue 34

 Young people in the spotlight