‘I cannot take it lightly’: young voters urged to take part in EU elections

<span>Students in Brussels at a demonstration calling for action on the climate crisis. If first time voters in June’s EU elections were a bloc, they would be larger than most EU countries.</span><span>Photograph: Alexandros Michailidis/Alamy</span>
Students in Brussels at a demonstration calling for action on the climate crisis. If first time voters in June’s EU elections were a bloc, they would be larger than most EU countries.Photograph: Alexandros Michailidis/Alamy

The town has a farm, a university and a factory, but nobody agrees on where to put the police station. Around a large table in a stuffy room in a museum basement next to the Royal Palace of Brussels, a group of teenagers are haggling over the construction of a fictional town that has run out of budget.

The group of 21 sixth formers from the south Belgian city of Mons have already divided into four political parties and fixed their priorities. Health, jobs and equality were high on everyone’s list. Now they have to find consensus on building a town, trading views over where to place brightly coloured blocks – standing for amenities – on the gleaming white table.

“You are in the same town, there is no point having four hospitals,” suggests Elisabeth Goes d’Huart, the moderator of Democracity, a citizenship workshop at the Belvue, the Brussels history museum hosting the event. “You are 21 [people] and it’s already complicated to come to an agreement even in your own parties,” she says at the end of the session. “To come to an agreement is super complicated.”

Next month the sixth formers will be called upon to cast their ballot for the first time. Voting is compulsory in Belgium and, for the first time, 16-year-olds are getting the vote. On 9 June they will have to vote not only in Belgium’s national and regional parliaments but also in elections to the European parliament.

As she emerges from a mock polling booth at the Belvue, Ketsia Djoho Nena, 18, says she is looking forward to voting. She is thinking hard and hasn’t made up her mind. “There is a really lot of choice … I have to make a good choice because my vote could change something, so I cannot take it lightly,” she says.

Across the continent, millions more young people will vote for the first time: 5.1 million in Germany, 4 million in France and 2.8 million in Italy, according to the EU statistics agency Eurostat. While no one can give a precise total of youth voters, if first-time voters were a bloc they would be larger than most EU countries. And that is not to be sniffed at.

In 2019 an increase in voting among young people helped drive overall turnout to a 25-year high of 50.6%. Despite EU satisfaction with the 2019 turnout, younger voters were still less likely to vote than their parents and grandparents: only 42% of voters up to the age 24 reported voting in 2019, versus 54% of the 55+ group, according to a European parliament survey.

EU officials are hoping for a strong turnout, knowing that people who go to the polls in early adulthood are more likely to develop a lifelong voting habit. The European parliament’s campaign video – a heart-wrenching montage of older people sharing memories of the second world war and the Holocaust, the crushing of the Prague spring and the fall of the Berlin Wall with their grandchildren – is intended to mobilise young voters.

“Take good care of democracy when I’m not here any more,” one grandmother urges her grandchild. “Always remember that freedom and democracy weren’t always here and we can lose them very quickly,” says another.

As in any country, young voters cannot be summed up as a bloc. Education is “absolutely” a dividing line, says Catherine De Vries, a professor of political science at Bocconi University in Milan. She sees the “largest polarisation” and greatest difference in attitudes “between lower-educated men and higher-educated women”.

Higher youth turnout does not translate into support for the European project or flagship policies such as the Green deal, she notes. “That misses the long-term development, where we see inroads of far-right parties into certain groups of young voters that are less formally educated, that have more precarious job situations, that might be struggling in the housing market.”

Youth support for far-right and nationalist parties has been evident in the Netherlands, France, Germany and some central and eastern European countries where governments have unpicked democratic standards. In Bulgaria, more than half (51%) of 18- to 24-year-olds polled last year said having a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections was good for the country.

Rumena Filipova, of the Institute for Global Analytics thinktank in Sofia, said: “What we see in Bulgaria is that young people between the ages of 18 to 34, those between 18 to 24 in particular, are not as pro-democratic or pro-western as we might have expected. They also seem to continue to have a pro-Russian attitude. So the youngest generation seems to hold more positive views towards far-right groups.”

She sees similar patterns in Hungary and non-EU Serbia, countries that “have experienced a degree of autocratic rule”.

One of the antidotes to democracy scepticism advocated for by Filipova are politics classes in schools, which she says have been only fitfully introduced in Bulgaria and are “not considered a key part of the curriculum”. She also wants to see history education, as well as government leadership and policies to “speak to young people’s concerns that make them feel included in the political process”.

In Belgium, the organiser of Democracity, the King Baudouin Foundation, reaches 20,000 young people a year through 800 workshops and a travelling exhibition on democracy. The foundation began citizenship programmes as a response to the rise of the extreme right in Flanders in the 1990s.

When it started running workshops in 2004 “there was no such thing” as political education, says An Lavens, the foundation’s director of democracy programmes. She says the workshops “lessen the risk of polarisation and open the consensus possibilities”.

One aim is to make students realise “that something that might seem really boring to them” matters to their lives. Even the most reluctant students soon become interested, she says. “Little by little you can see that they understand that it is about them and that it’s important to make their voice heard.”

Over the last two decades Lavens has seen how young people’s priorities have changed. The aftermath of the Paris and Brussels terror attacks led students to focus on security; Covid switched attention to health; migration is “much more a priority” now than it was 10 to 15 years ago. “It is like having a finger at the pulse of society,” Lavens says.

Anthony Porco, the philosophy and citizenship teacher of the Mons students, wants to make sure his class is well informed about next month’s votes. And while he has observed the runaway popularity of the rising star of the French far right, Jordan Bardella, among French young people, he has not see the same trend in francophone Belgium.

“We are lucky because we have the cordon sanitaire and the traditional parties refuse to debate the extreme right. So the extreme right is not very popular thanks to that,” he says. By contrast, he notes, the extreme right are popular in Dutch-speaking Flanders, while in francophone Wallonia it is the extreme left Parti du Travail that is making inroads among young voters.

But the goal of the workshop is not to inoculate students against the extreme right, he says. “That’s not the direct aim, but indirectly yes, as the extreme right is by definition anti-democratic … [The goal] is the promotion of democracy and how to live together.”