Youth is the answer to the EU’s troubling voter turnout rate

May 29, 2014

MJC–Dr Marie Julie Chenard is Deputy Head of the Cold War Studies Programme at LSE IDEAS and Academic Officer for the Dahrendorf Symposium Project at the London School of Economics and Political Science. The opinions expressed are her own.–

The European elections are the second biggest exercise in democracy world-wide (behind India). Nearly 400 million EU citizens were eligible to vote their representatives to the European Parliament between the 22nd and 25th May, but only 43% actually did. What can be done to increase participation in elections that have an impact on 500 million people?

Declining turnout in the European elections is a serious threat to the legitimacy of a very young democracy. It is an on-going experiment beyond the nation state. MEPs have only been elected by direct universal suffrage since 1979. It was only in 2009 that the Lisbon Treaty gave the European Parliament have an equal say on nearly all EU laws and empowered it to play a key role in electing the President of the European Commission – all efforts to close the perceived democratic deficit.

Low electoral participation also means significant gains for insurgent parties such as UKIP in Britain and Front National in France – parties who represent a protest votes. Paradoxically, these anti-EU parties are increasing their decision-making power over a political space they are fighting against.

Some advocate making voting compulsory, already in use to varying degrees in countries including Belgium, Greece and Australia, but that doesn’t solve the problem of political engagement; if anything it represents a violation of personal liberty. In a democracy, not voting is also a vote cast.

Engaging the next generation of voters is the key to reverse the trend of declining voter turnout. This is no easy task: according to the Eurobarometer survey, two thirds of young people aged 18 to 24 did not vote in the 2004 elections. Abstention rates were even higher in 2009, and the trend is likely to have continued this time around.

The solution must start before young people can vote. We all form political opinions and interests well before reaching voting age. Therefore civic and political education at school is key. It should be underway by age 10, so as to be free and compulsory. Curricula vary from one state to another but they all should foster knowledge of European history and EU governance.

Children’s elections are an innovative way to cultivate civic participation. In 1997 UNICEF supported a programme under which Mexican children between six and twelve were able to vote on Election Day. Children cast their ballot to vote for their most cherished right. Choices included individual health, clean air, and freedom of expression. The result was less important than the process itself: the act of making a choice and having a say.

Politicians should visit schools. They should debate issues that are of relevance to the students. This in turn may encourage young people to take part in initiatives such as the European Youth Parliament. This is the largest European platform for political debate and intercultural encounters. It involved 27,000 young people in 2013. One hopes that some of those who took part will consider becoming a candidate for the full Parliament in the future.

Indeed, encouraging younger candidates to stand for office would help raise the profile of young people’s concerns. A quota on party MEP candidates under the age of 35 would guarantee such representation. At the same time it would force parties to take youth engagement seriously.

Parties need to address youth issues clearly in their manifestos. Where do they stand on access to education, the structure of labour markets, and social solidarity? Parties have clear gains to make by being responsive: engaging the youth vote is a long-term strategy towards electoral success.

Elections are one of the most important modes of democratic participation. Voting is a right, but also a social duty. Low electoral turnout reflects deep issues of social and political disengagement, and is not just a problem for the EU, but for advanced democracies across the world. Youth engagement is the answer.

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