Young people and European involvement: a long-lasting gap or a trend reversal? 

By Giulia Gensini

The visible gap between European citizens and European institutions reflects people’s clear disaffection with who should represent them. 

The results of EU elections from 1979 to 2014 show a lack of involvement, particularly among young citizens. But all is not lost! In fact, in 2019 a trend reversal has led to a strong increase in participation and it’s curious to point out the main actors who have contributed as drivers to this preliminary trend reversal. As you can see from the following graph, young people’s participation in the EP elections has remarkably increased from 2014 to 2019. Their vote was decisive in achieving the highest turnout since 1994.

What is the reason that motivates young people to get more involved in European politics? 

The main argument in favour is closely related to the need for our generation to get involved in political activities and civic engagement. Making a difference through our voice, our participation, our desire to have more influence on the agenda-setting at the European level is part of this process. 

This is what I have tried to achieve by participating in two very challenging and interactive extracurricular projects: student’s roundtable during the international week and EU talks. 

The role of the EU for Member States 

June is around the corner; but what are the expectations for these key elections? 

For the first time, we have a clear opportunity to understand whether the process that started five years ago with a relevant increase in voter turnout is just an exception or a starting point for a gradual reduction in people’s perception of EU elections being of secondary importance

In this complex framework, young people play a pivotal role. Young people’s participation in 2019 is the result of our awareness that current challenges need EU intervention in order to be resolved. Consider some of the crises that have shaped Europe in recent decades. Some examples are Covid-19 and the Ukrainian war: how could individual member states be able to solve them without European action? 

The complexity of the current international scenario should indeed be one of the reasons that encourage the younger generations to become more involved and engaged in EU politics. Let’s not forget that most of the decisions that directly affect our future are the outcome of exclusive competences that Member States have transferred to the EU, according to the principle of conferral

Two bottom-up projects: youth participation at micro level 

As a European citizen, I decided to take part in two extra-curricular initiatives organised by the School of Political Science in Florence. Both were focused on the dialogue and the discussion between young students about topics closely connected to the European Union. 

Firstly, during the International Week, I had the opportunity to organise, together with three other colleagues, a students’ roundtable in front of an audience of foreign professors. It was an inspiring and useful project to develop our own critical thinking and to share our opinions and reflections with them.

Down here, some photos made by Professor Bulli during our final presentation:

We’ve conducted two anonymous surveys, to which 138 young people aged 18-35 from different EU countries have responded. Our aim was to find out young people’s perceptions and potential criticisms of European activity, in order to increase their participation and bring them closer to the EP in the run-up to the June elections. 

Among the many interesting questions we asked, you can see in the graphs below two main starting points on the relationships between youth and EU elections. 

Source: survey created by us 

Incredibly, almost 90% of young people who took part in our research said they would vote in the upcoming elections. 

Source: survey created by us 

The previous data is also the result of young European citizens’ perception that the EU institutions could still be closer to our own needs. In fact, a large majority of young people responding to our surveys believes that EU institutions are not able to fully understand our needs. 

As far as the opportunities offered by the EU are concerned, most of them don’t know about the variety of possibilities that we can ‘take advantage of’ because we are part of a bigger community called ‘European Union’. They only know the Erasmus project, although other examples are represented by the European solidarity corps, the European youth portal or the Charlemagne youth prize which promotes youth projects within the EU.  

The second project I’ve joined is ‘EU talks’; with my group we’ve developed some ideas with the scope to increase youth participation in the European process and strengthen EU citizenship. 

If you’re curious about the final proposal we presented to the City Council of Florence, you can click on this link (even if it’s in Italian)! 

Down here, some photos during the working project: 

We can deduce that young people will be more involved in EU policy if they (and we) are aware and informed about how to actively participate and make our own contribution. Communication and information are the two driving forces to enforce their participation.

Will the EU be able to engage this generation in the 2024 elections?

In some European countries the voting age has been lowered. Taking into account young people’s priorities, the scope of this strategy is to achieve greater youth participation. For example, in Belgium and Germany the voting age has been reduced to 16 in order to involve more citizens in the upcoming EU elections. 

For all the reasons mentioned above, the likelihood of young people getting involved in these elections seems to be hopeful. On the basis of the trend reversal in 2019, young people could indeed represent the ‘the end of an era’ in which European elections are perceived as less important compared to the national ones. 

And keep in mind, don’t let others choose for you! Go and vote!