Introducing our new study: Safeguarding Civic Space for Young People in Europe

Space for active participation is shrinking

Over the years, we have, unfortunately, witnessed a crackdown against civil society, including youth organisations, in various European countries. This trend is continuing in 2020, with extremely worrying signs that the COVID-19 health crisis is being used to gain political control, putting many dimensions of civic space under threat. With our new study, Safeguarding Civic Space for Young People in Europe, the European Youth Forum aims to put the spotlight on challenges faced by youth organisations in Europe. 

As the voice of young people, the European Youth Forum has a mission to support independent, democratic, youth and volunteer-led platforms. With the evidence presented in this study, we will continue to fight for an enabling environment for youth organisations, where they are a vital part of a healthy democracy and where they can function without any barriers – financially, legally, politically and legitimately.

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Key findings of the study

In the last few years, we have witnessed a persistent trend of silencing youth organisations who play a key role in advocating for youth rights and upholding democratic values. In our study, we find that this trend is not limited to the ‘usual suspects’ but can be seen everywhere - irrespective of the country’s democratic tradition, prevailing social cleavages, wealth, human rights record, or geographical location. 

 2/5 of organisations do not feel certain that the organisation of or participation in public assemblies will not result in some form of retribution.

Our research reveals that for youth organisations to function and advocate for young people, they have to overcome significant challenges. One of these challenges, especially in non-EU countries, is to be able to function independently or without government interference. This struggle for independence relates strongly to issues of funding as well - for example, where 1/3 of youththese organisations experience barriers to acquiring foreign funding.
About 1/3 of youth organisations across Europe face difficulties when trying to participate in policy deliberation and decision-making processes.

Opportunities for youth organisations to participate in policy processes were also reported to be restricted and limited. Issues such as language barriers, limited timeframes, lack of support for meaningful participation and sporadic use of consultation mechanisms, are preventing youth voices being heard.

1/2 organisations see that youth is either present, but under-represented, has limited access to civic space, or is largely or completely marginalised.

Age creates a significant reduction in access to civic space, but even more so when combined with other factors. 1/5 of organisations believe that economically disadvantaged groups are marginalised to some extent and more than 1/3 of youth organisations believe that women are underrepresented, have limited access to civic space or are largely marginalised. 

1/3 of organisations deemed that human rights are only moderately respected when it comes to youth, 1/8 of them say to a limited extent or not at all.

Overall, the study reveals that preconditions for effective and meaningful civic space – respect of human rights and freedoms, effective rule of law and freedom from political pressures – are far from secure. Abuse of power and overall inability to secure these rights and freedoms in practice means that the general standards are not met. 

Key Recommendations for all relevant stakeholders

  • Recognise that young people are rights holders, face unique challenges and need unique support.
  • Provide resources for the basic functioning of youth organisations.
  • Devote attention also to informal groups/initiatives of young people and support them with different measures.
  • Invest in capacity building of young people and youth organisations. 
  • Strengthen detection and prevention of anti-democratic measures arising, especially from a youth perspective.
  • Define civic space and democratic actions together with young people and revisit them over time.
  • Support the meaningful participation of young people in public affairs, with a non-technocratic language, as well as their native language where applicable.
  • Introduce systematic monitoring of countries’ performance in regards to safeguarding civic spaces for young people.
  • Introduce analytical data regarding civic spaces of young people across identities, cultures and communities.
What is civic space?

Civic space is the place, regardless of whether it's online or offline, where people exercise their rights to freedom of association, expression, and peaceful assembly. It allows us to discuss issues and participate in public decision-making. Ultimately, a healthy civic space allows democracy and society to thrive. In fact, an open civil society is also one of the most important safeguards against tyranny, oppression, and other anti-democratic tendencies.

While the role of civil society is generally undisputed -  its limits, scope and justification are far from settled. 


How did the study measure civic space?

This study was based on a survey conducted between 28  September  and  28  December  2018. As a sampling procedure, we mapped the most politically and socially relevant youth organisations, regardless of their legal form, by examining the membership of key European and national youth umbrella organisations and complementing this list with identified relevant youth organisations from the European Commission’s Youth Wiki tool.

1105 organisations were contacted in total and 322 responses were received.

The Safeguarding Civic Space for Young People in Europe study has identified five dimensions of civic space - more information can be found regarding each of them in the text of the study. 

Freedoms of information and expression

Rights of assembly and association

Citizen participation

Non-discrimination and inclusion:

Human rights and the rule of law


Need to get in touch?

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fax: +32 2 893 25 80
Rue de l’Industrie, 10
1000 Brussels

More information here.