BRUSSELS – In an overlooked research study released last week by Eurobarometer, the turnout rate of voters in May’s European elections was revealed.
For anyone interested in young people and their engagement in civic life and politics – in fact anyone interested in democracy at all – it made for rather grim reading.
The research found that, as in previous European elections, a minority of young people (28% aged 18-24) voted, lower than any other age group (for example 51% of those aged 55 or over voted).
This is a big drop from the 64 percent of young people (15-30 year olds) surveyed in May 2013 who said they intended to vote in the European Elections. But it continues the trend from 2009 when 29 percent of youth voted.
Only three countries bucked this trend; in Belgium, Luxembourg, and Sweden youth turnout was higher from average turnout. As Belgium and Luxembourg have mandatory voting, their differences are small.
In Sweden, 66 percent of youth voted, which is about 15 points higher from the average. But there are also countries where the negative gap is much wider – only 21 percent of Irish and 10 percent of Finnish youth turned out, with a difference of more than 31 points compared to average in these countries.
So what changed between May 2013 and the elections to make young people not to use their democratic right to vote?
Clearly European politics has a problem. But, it is not, as one could imagine, necessarily down to some of the current alarmist, negative headlines about the European Union, nor can it be totally attributed to the rise in the Eurosceptic rhetoric.
The research also shows that young people generally feel more positive about the EU, which has also been quite consistent through several Eurobarometer surveys. In fact, they have a higher rate of support for their country’s membership and a greater belief in the power of their vote to influence policy than any other age group.
Lack of trust in politics
Young people, similarly to the overall population, most commonly cite a lack of trust in or dissatisfaction with politics in general, rather than blaming the EU itself. It is also interesting to note that the great innovation of 2014, the frontrunners for European Commission put forward by European parties, did not really excite anyone.
Despite the massive problems that young people face, they did not see a solution in the politicians’ manifestos. The traditional way that the European political system operates is not working for young people. The European Youth Forum’s ‘League of Young Voters’ initiative is working to reverse this trend, to encourage active participation and citizenship amongst young people at the European level.
It also has branches at national level and those Leagues will continue engaging with young people ahead of key national elections. One country where the youth turnout improved and was close to the overall average is Lithuania, where they ran a strong campaign calling on young people to vote.
Another great concern should be Eastern Europe. Coming from a country in the East, Estonia, I know very well how much we have gained through EU membership – and people do appreciate that, and are much more positive towards E
But all the bottom countries in overall turnout are Eastern – with Romania, Latvia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia all having a turnout lower than a third. This is hardly a strong mandate for a European Parliament. My country did only marginally better with a disappointing turnout of 36.5 percent. Re-engage with younger voters
European leaders must be more proactive and take the necessary steps to re-engage with younger voters. Research released earlier this year by the League of Young Voters showed that young people are interested in politics, but that political parties are out of touch with them and the different ways that young people wish to get involved.
First of all, we need to study individual countries more closely; we should examine how young people engage with politics and spread best practice. It is clear that if youth keeps abstaining, our representative democracies will face a deep crisis with an entire generation less likely to engage for the rest of their lives.
This will also not inspire future young generations, marginalising their voices as well. And certainly, low turnout will only help the most ignorant of politicians, reinforcing the negative trends further.
Targeted measures to combat this, such a European approach to citizenship education that involves schools and youth civil society and develops a space where youth participation is learned and practiced. Lowering the voting age to 16 can also help reverse this trend and build a youth-inclusive European politics.
The Scottish referendum on their future showed that a combination of an issue that matters and good citizenship education, will inspire youth to participate more than anyone else. We hope that it will not take another five years for EU leaders to wake up to the need to engage with young people and bring them to the ballot box!