Written by Richard Freedman in cooperation with Gianluca Sgueo,
Democracy is about much more than voting once every five years or so in a national or European election. It is also about civil engagement and participation in the democratic process. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that while turnout in the 2014 European elections stabilised at just under 43% (very similar to 2009), turnout has been declining since 1979. Furthermore, turnout among young voters in the European elections of May 2014 (18-24) was low, at 28%. Contrast that with turnout among people aged 55 and over, over half of whom (51%) cast their ballots in 2014, and it’s clear that youth participation in European elections is not the best it could be. The European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) has traced and analysed voter turnout in this regularly updated facts and figures briefing.
Young people not voting, but positive about Europe
Yet the problem is even more complex. According to the Eurobarometer survey of October 2014 post the European elections, the youngest Europeans (18-24) were more positive about the European Union than the oldest (55+), even though far fewer of them turned out to vote. The same can be said for many national elections. So what can be done about it?
Alternative forms of participation
A slew of schemes have been launched to encourage young people to become engaged in politics. Initiatives include smartphone apps, vlogging and social media campaigns aiming to revolutionise how young people think about politics. But all of these commendable initiatives do not seem to make a difference in increasing youth turnout.
Young people have developed different forms of political activism and participation, such as demonstrating, volunteering in associations and socialising and expressing political opinions through digital and social media. While social media is increasingly used in campaigns across Europe, the ultimate effect of this usage remains unclear. Some attribute the increasing levels of political activity on the internet to citizens who are already politically committed. It may be that social media have only a very limited effect on getting otherwise disengaged citizens to engage.
Other possibilities to increase young people’s participation in elections include lowering the age of voting for elections, making it easier to vote (online, postal voting for example) or even having quotas for young people as candidates. Some go even further and advocate making voting compulsory, already in use to varying degrees in countries including Belgium, Greece and Australia. Many experts advocate civic and political education at school being a key factor. Curricula vary from one state to another, and education is clearly a national competence, yet teaching participatory democracy from an early age could be one way of addressing the disillusionment with established political parties.
It has also been recommended by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance that political parties need to address youth issues more clearly in their manifestos. Where do they stand on access to education, on combatting youth unemployment, training and social solidarity? Parties could make gains by being responsive: engaging the youth vote would seem to be a long-term strategy towards electoral success.
Europe for Citizens programme
One way the EU is doing something about is by, Europe for Citizens (EFC) programme, (see EPRS briefing) which aims at encouraging direct participation of citizens at EU level and promoting dialogue between the EU institutions, civil society organisations and municipalities. The programme has been running since 2004. For the 2014-20 period the EFC focuses on enhancing European citizens’ awareness of remembrance and the history of the EU, and on actively involving European civil society in shaping EU policy.
Have your say on democratic participation at the European Youth Event in May 2016
Is that enough to tackle the problem? What measures would you like to see taken to tackle disillusionment and low turnout? It would seem that there is no silver bullet or panacea to restoring young people’s faith in politics. At the European Youth Event 2016 (Strasbourg, 20-21 May 2016) no doubt this will be one of the key topics of discussion. Your chance to engage!