Youth Participation: A European Comparative Perspective Concerns about the apparent disengagement of young people from conventional politics implicitly involve comparisons with other social groups, or with earlier historical periods, or with different societies. Chapters 3 and 4 highlighted variations over time in young people’s political attitudes and behaviour, and how these compare with other social groups in Britain. This chapter focuses upon cross-national variations in the extent of young people’s political engagement, both in relation to young people’s cognitive, affective and evaluative orientations to politics (interest, knowledge, trust, regime satisfaction) and in terms of their subsequent political responses. This chapter begins by outlining the rationale for European comparative youth, and proposing a strategy for exploring cross-national variations in political attitudes and behaviour amongst young Europeans. The evidence of cross-national variations in young European citizens’ politics is examined here by drawing upon data from the 2003 European Social Survey. However, considering the role of the wider social, economic and political context in shaping young people’s political responses is also vital. Drawing upon data from the 2001 Eurobarometer Young Citizens survey, this chapter therefore assesses the potential of European policy initiatives to encourage wider participation by young people in decision-making processes. Youth, Politics and Citizenship in Europe The drive towards the further integration of the European Union (EU) as a political community throws into sharp relief the apparent ‘democratic deficit’ of European governance institutions. Europe as a political space has been defined by evergreater policy integration as a result of treaty agreements that have had the effect of transforming European governance from an intergovernmental to an essentially supranational entity (Katz and Wessels, 1999). However, as Schmitt and Thomassen (1999) argue, the development of Europe as a political community depends at least as much upon the nature of citizens’ political values, attitudes and identifications as it does upon institutional changes. In the context of ever-greater institutional integration, fears have thus been raised that processes of representation and accountability have not kept pace with this expansion, opening up a ‘democratic deficit’ resulting in a crisis of legitimacy (Hayward, 1995;
Anderson and Eliassen, 1996). Although others have argued that such ‘crises’ prognoses are not warranted (e.g., Moravcsik, 2002), improving the accountability of EU decision making, and widening participation in EU governance have become key foci for policy development within the EU (e.g., CEC, 2001a). An emphasis upon improving young people’s opportunities for participation and their access to the information necessary to making informed political choices has been central to these initiatives, as outlined in the 2001 EU Youth White Paper (CEC, 2001b). The White Paper consultation identifies a clear demand on the part of young people to play a more active role in public life based upon a clear acknowledgement of involvement in decision making as a basic, universal right of EU citizenship. At the same time, if young people’s involvement is to be meaningful, formal participation rights need to be augmented by a real commitment to tackling socio-economic inequalities, as well as to equipping young citizens with the skills and opportunities necessary for effective participation. However, whilst concerns persist about the ‘democratic deficit’ of European institutions, it is also the case that recent years have seen increasing convergence in public attitudes towards EU-level political institutions. Both levels of voter turnout, and wider indicators of political trust and satisfaction, suggest increasing similarity in citizens’ perceptions of EU and domestic political institutions. If there is any impending ‘crisis of democracy’, it thus appears that this is not confined to supranational institutions but has implications also for the domestic politics of member states. Changes in the nature and extent of citizens’ cognitive mobilisation, their affective and evaluative orientations, and their styles of political participation, have long been a central feature of ‘crisis’ prognoses regarding the future prospects for democratic politics both within nation states and internationally. However, in general, the absence of high quality, cross-national comparative data on political attitudes and behaviour has meant that the focus of much survey analysis has been upon the individual-level determinants of political attitudes and participation constrained within national borders. One important exception has been the post-materialist values thesis advanced by Inglehart (1977, 1990) and others on the basis of World Values Survey and European Values Survey data. This approach identifies significant longitudinal changes in citizens’ basic socio-political values with important consequences for the extent and style of citizens’ participation in the western democracies. On the basis of cross-national comparison, Inglehart (1990) locates the roots of these processes in rising standards of material security and well-being in the post-1945 era. Whilst these claims remain disputed, it is nevertheless clear that analysis of cross-national data can potentially facilitate exploration of the effects of societallevel phenomena upon individuals’ political attitudes and patterns of behaviour in ways that are clearly precluded on the basis of purely national survey data. Understanding the determinants of citizens’ participation in politics and decision making requires consideration both of the resource context within which individuals’ participatory decisions are made, and of the political opportunity structures that shape the political choices available to citizens. The relative costs and benefits of participation thus reflect individuals’ access to material, human and
social resources on the one hand, and the openness of public decision making to citizens’ interventions on the other. Although this framework seeks to interpret behaviour at an individual level, the opportunities and costs of citizen action are clearly also influenced by wider, macro-level changes in the social, economic and institutional structure of European societies. As Chapter 1 has shown, changes in the social and economic context of youth transitions in recent decades also have important implications for young people’s political socialisation. Similarly, it would be astonishing if the institutional and political context within which citizens make participatory decisions did not also influence citizens’ perceptions of the efficacy of political action. In this context it is therefore useful to investigate the extent to which cross-national variations in social, economic, and political contexts influence the scope and extent of young citizens’ engagement with politics, and their propensity to engage in political action. Amongst these, the effects of cross-national differences in social welfare provision, economic development, and the openness of governance institutions, are frequently cited as principal determinants of the extent of citizen political mobilisation and identification with political institutions, both within European societies and internationally. The effects of state social policies upon citizens’ political engagement has been most extensively explored in relation to wider debates about the role of welfare regimes in shaping levels of social capital. In the dominant view, social expenditures and comprehensive social provision are held to ‘crowd out’ social capital, resulting in declining commitment to civic norms, trust in public institutions, and participation in civic life (e.g., Offe, 1984; Etzioni, 1995; Putnam, 2000). In this view, comprehensive state welfare provision undermines the role of non-state institutions and family networks in providing social support and as a result weakens social ties and norms of reciprocity and mutuality. Whilst others argue that state provision in fact creates the material and social preconditions for a thriving civil society (e.g., Skocpol, 1996; Rothstein, 2001), the ‘crowding out’ thesis remains the dominant perspective (Arts et al., 2003; Oorschot and Arts, 2005). Nevertheless, in the European context the available evidence mostly suggests that social capital is in general at its highest in those nations with the most developed welfare states (e.g., Rothstein, 2001; Arts et al., 2003; Oorschot and Arts, 2005; see, however, Scheepers et al., 2002, who reach rather different conclusions at least with regard to social networks and support). The role of economic development in encouraging positive civic norms, trust in public institutions, and participation in civic life has generally been assumed to be largely benign (e.g., Knack and Keefer, 1997; Zak and Knack, 2001; Grotaert and Bastelaer, 2002). However, others have argued that rising levels of affluence within the developed societies of the global North are contributing to a decline in levels of social capital (Yankelovich, 1994) and collective political action (Inglehart, 1990). At the same time, levels of economic development are often closely inter-correlated with levels of state social provision. As Oorschot and Arts (2005) note, in a European context the high levels of social expenditure and low levels of income inequality typical of Scandinavian countries are closely associated
with higher levels of economic development. Similarly, the lower levels of social expenditure and higher levels of income inequality typical of southern European states are also associated with relatively low levels of economic development. Finally, institutional variations in the political context within which young citizens make participatory decisions are also likely to be a significant factor. As a result of their relatively ‘open’ political opportunity structure, more democratic polities generally provide more opportunities for political participation (Tarrow, 1983; Kriesi et al., 1995; Van Deth and Elff, 2001). Clearly, (legal) forms of participation require opportunities for involvement without which there is little reason for citizens to engage with politics at all (Van Deth and Elff, 2001). To what extent, then, do young citizens in Europe share common styles of political participation, and common orientations towards politics? Can divergences in young Europeans’ political attitudes and styles of participation be explained by macro-level factors relating to, for example, differences in welfare and economic policy regimes across European societies, or to variations in the institutional context of participation? Based upon analysis of the 2003 European Social Survey, the next section explores cross-sectional variations across European youth in levels of trust in public institutions, regime satisfaction, and political participation. In particular, it examines the hypothesised relationships between political engagement and levels of social expenditure, economic development and political system openness, both at the aggregate (national) level and the individual level. Hypotheses, Data and Operationalisation Hypotheses The objectives of the analyses presented here are twofold. Firstly, to describe cross-national variations in young citizens’ attitudes to politics and political participation across European societies, with the goal of assessing the similarities and differences in political attitudes and action of young people in Britain compared with their European counterparts. Secondly, to explore the extent to which these variations can be accounted for by cross-national differences in economic development, social welfare provision, and political system openness as discussed above. Whilst their effects remain disputed, the predominance of evidence in the European context suggests that political trust, regime satisfaction and political participation amongst European youth will be highest in those countries with:
H1: The highest levels of social expenditure, and the lowest levels of income inequality (social policy regime).