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Youth want a say in European Parliament vote

May 9, 2019

With EU elections on the horizon, what do the bloc's young people feel is most important? The TUI Foundation’s European Youth Study found that climate issues are key, and overall young people want more EU than less.

Berlin students protesting at a "Fridays for Future" demonstration
Image: Getty Images/AFP/O. Andersen

Many young people value the European Union, but they want to have more of a say in how it is run — especially on topics that are particularly important to them. "The Europe generation is demanding to be listened to more, and to have more of a voice," said Elke Hlawatschek, the managing director of the TUI Foundation. "That's the message of this year's Youth Study to all those with political responsibility."

Nonetheless, only one in two EU citizens aged 16-26 consider the elections for the European Parliament important, and only one in five respondents feel that the bloc's legislature genuinely represents them. That's hardly surprising; after all, the average age of the members of the European Parliament is 56. The youngest legislator is a 30-year-old Bulgarian.

Although respondents cited "asylum and migration" as the most important issues currently facing the European Union, that does not mean they reject nominally open borders within the bloc. 43% of the respondents who named asylum and migration as their most important issues also consider open borders within the European Union an opportunity; only 27% see them as a threat. Freedom of movement within the EU was overwhelmingly evaluated as a positive thing — as far as young voters are concerned, it's nonnegotiable.

Read more: What does the European Parliament actually do?

DW Infographic: Climate protection and digitalization

Fridays for Future

Environmental and climate protection are also very important to young Europeans. For months now, young people have been protesting as part of the "Fridays for Future" movement. They are demonstrating against the destruction of the environment, much too high energy consumption, and rising carbon dioxide emissions from traffic and factory farming, as well as the pollution of the soil, air, and groundwater. They are calling on politicians to do far more to protect the environment and the climate.

Read more: German EU candidate proposes global ban on single-use plastics

This also strikes a chord with older people. According to a recent survey by Germany's public service broadcaster ARD, 81% of people in Germany now think there is an urgent need for action to protect the climate, while 85% believe climate change cannot be stopped without making changes to our way of life.

However, genuine readiness to change one's own habits of consumption to benefit environmental protection is increasing only slowly — and it's young people who are taking the lead. In the TUI survey, 28% of respondents indicated that they had rejected certain products for political or ethical reasons in the past year, or had selected others for precisely those reasons. In Germany, that figure is 33%.

Read more: Germans to choose from 41 parties in EU elections

DW Infographic: Challenges facing EU

Young people want more radical change

But how would it be possible to involve young people more, not only in the political discourse but in the political process as well? Marcus Spittler from the WZB Berlin Social Science Center recommends political parties put more modern structures in place to make it easier for young people to join them and get involved. "Young adults are particularly interested in parties that offer them some kind of change or vision of the future. 67% believe radical changes are needed in order to remedy the political system," he says.

This desire for change is one of the reasons why young people sometimes find populist parties attractive. "Phasing out coal by 2038 and free WiFi in Bavarian buses by 2050 just isn't utopian enough for them," says Spittler. It should also give politicians pause for thought that it's only in northern Europe that a majority of respondents believe their living standards are higher than those of their parents.

DW Infographic: Perspectives for the future

Lower the voting age to 16 across the EU?

It's also worrying that only slightly more than half of young people (58%) are convinced that democracy is the best form of government. Its approval ratings are especially low in France (38%), Italy, and Poland (both 46%). At the other end of the scale, support for democracy is especially pronounced in Greece (73%), Germany, and Sweden (both 66%), and Denmark (65%). However, only a minority (6%) of young people consider a form of government other than democracy to be better.

Read more: One in 10 EU voters support far-right populist parties

Around 60% of those surveyed for the Youth Study say they think it is at least "likely" that they will vote in the 2019 European elections. In most EU countries, citizens can vote from the age of 18. Marcus Spittler of the WZB proposes lowering the voting age to 16 all across the EU, as is already the case in Malta and Austria.

He says that this would give young adults a better chance to get more involved in the political process: "With a voting age of 16, there would be a real opportunity to provide more information in schools and vocational training institutes in the run-up to their first vote, so that young people get somewhat into the habit of voting."

The Debate: Which way is Europe heading?