A report published by the Commission on the implementation of the EU’s Youth Strategy between 2019 and 2021 demonstrates that young people in the EU have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic over the last two years. According to the report, prior to March 2020 European economies were on a strong and stable path to recovery following the economic crisis that started in 2008. Between 2015 and 2019, a third of young people in the EU had been abroad for studies, training, work or volunteer programmes; the impact of the pandemic has meant that those who were involved in these programmes at the start of the pandemic had to abandon them early, and since then these programmes have not been able to operate in the same way, with any opportunities available being run remotely.

The report found that this huge surge in working and studying digitally resulted in a massive increase in loneliness and a negative impact on education, employment and mental health. It highlighted the increase in feelings of isolation, anxiety and depression among young people, and particularly pointed out the disproportionate impact on young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

As a result, the Commission and the European Parliament made the decision to designate 2022 as the “European Year of Youth.” The plan is to stage events organised “by and for” young people and to provide opportunities for young people across Europe, in particular for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The initiative was officially approved by the European Parliament in December 2021.

The initiative was announced at the end of September, so the Commission and the European Parliament have had to work quickly to ensure that the necessary funding is in place in time for the start of the year. The year is being modelled on the 2018 European Year of Cultural Heritage, which was a resounding success.

Speaking to the Committee on Culture and Education in the European Parliament in October, representatives from the Commission set out their main objectives as: to highlight how the green and digital transitions offer new opportunities for young people; encourage al young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to become active and engaged citizens; and to promote opportunities for young people at the local, regional and national level to support their personal, social and professional development. They also advised that the Year of Youth should encompass the whole range of EU policies, and that each Member State will nominate a national coordinator responsible for organising their Member State’s participation.

The European Youth Forum also spoke at the Committee meeting, and emphasised their desire to see a legacy of mainstream youth participation and the creation of structures that will guarantee engagement beyond 2022. In addition, they highlighted that their takeaway from the European Youth Event held at the start of October 2021, was that there seems to be a disconnect between “adults” being willing to listen to young people’s ideas and taking those ideas seriously. They also argued that in terms of reaching disadvantaged young people, their member organisations in each country will be able to do that much more effectively in their local context on a smaller budget than any national coordinator could. However, the Youth Forum representatives also acknowledged that in some countries, local initiatives will benefit from strong backing from the Commission and the European Parliament so that they can be embedded in the work in their country.

In terms of funding, the Commission had indicated that they had identified 8 million euros from the existing Erasmus+ and European Solidarity Corps programmes; when voting on the measures in the European Parliament, MEPs also added an option for EU funds to continue to be made available for similar or continuing ventures past 2022. In addition, MEPs voted the measures through with the obligation to involve young people and youth organisations in the planning of events at national and EU level. Both of these additions give a signal that the EU is committed to making the legacy from the year endure past 2022.

5,000 young people from across Europe responded to a survey put out by the Commission to contribute ideas for the year. The most popular activities mentioned were festivals, workshops, and debates, as well as travel opportunities and exchanges. It will be interesting to see how national coordinators and EU coordinators manage this, given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The European Year of Youth is clearly a very ambitious event, that is being organised at very short notice. It is impressive that the legislative framework has been approved in time. It will be really interesting to see what events are put on, and what the short and long-term impacts will be on young people across the EU.