How young voters could again drive EU election turnout

The surge in youth turnout in 2019 will likely be repeated in June – but this time it could bolster the far right.

By Thibault Spirlet

Thibault Spirlet is a human rights freelance journalist based in London whose work has been published in the Daily Express, Politico Europe, Factal and AFP.

23 Apr 2024

Cliches about growing voter apathy, particularly for European elections and particularly among the young, no longer hold true. 

From its hopeful beginnings, the European Parliament seemed for a long time to be sliding towards irrelevance. Voter participation fell at every one of its five-yearly elections, from 62 per cent in 1979 to 42.5 per cent in 2014. 

That all changed in 2019, with turnout bouncing back to 50.6 percent, the highest since 1999. And according to a Eurobarometer survey, much of the surge came from young voters: the participation of under-25s rose by 14 percentage points compared to 2014, and by 12 percentage points among 25 to 39-year-olds. 

With new elections just weeks away, Europe’s young voters may be about to repeat the trick, political analysts and strategists told The Parliament – helped along by policies in several countries that will allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote for the first time. 

But while youth voters helped usher in the “green wave” of 2019 that brought about a mandate for ambitious environmental policies, recent national elections suggest that they could contribute to an expected surge for anti-immigration parties this time around. 

National trend 

Turnout among young voters has grown in recent national elections, albeit to different degrees. Germany's 2021 federal elections saw the share of 21 to 29-year-old voters rise by 3.9 percentage points, whereas Poland's 2023 parliamentary elections saw voters aged 18-29 turn out at the ballot box at almost 70 per cent.  

According to Lauren Mason, a policy and advocacy manager at the European Youth Forum (EYF), rising youth turnout is a “positive indicator” for the upcoming European elections. “We hope that this trend will be replicated at the EU level,” Mason told The Parliament

Christelle Savall, president of Young European Federalists (JEF), said the organisation had recently collected 1.5 million votes for EurHope, its EU-wide campaign to put young citizens’ priorities at the centre of the public debate ahead of the elections. 

“We’ve seen a high engagement of young people who really want to have a clear say over the future of Europe,” Savall told The Parliament. “I think there’s a misconception that young people are not interested in politics. Perhaps there’s not much interest in party politics, but young people do rally around issues and values.” 

I think there’s a misconception that young people are not interested in politics.

She said historic events such as Covid and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have led young voters to perceive that “the stakes are higher” than in previous election cycles. 

Young voters are particularly eager to reinforce transparency and ethical conduct of EU officials, promote easier access to employment, and develop a more efficient EU-wide legal framework around immigration, the EurHope campaign found in a report

Savall also pointed to reforms bringing the legal voting age to 16 and 17 in some EU countries. About 1.7 million new young voters will be eligible to vote, as 16 and 17-year-olds will be allowed to vote in Belgium and Germany for the first time at the EU level, joining Malta and Austria, which allowed them to do so in 2019, and Greece, which has allowed 17-year-olds to vote since 2016. 

Capturing the youth vote 

Political analysts say it’s too early to say how a higher youth turnout could shape the European elections. But recent national election results suggest that rising support for nativist parties is due, in part, to support from young people. 

In last year’s Dutch election, Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV) clinched 37 of the national parliament’s 150 seats – more than any other party, and more than double the number it secured in the 2021 election – partly by capturing the largest number of youth voters: 17 per cent of voters between the ages of 18 and 34 voted for Wilders. 

France’s National Really (RN) won the votes of 39 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds and 49 per cent of 25 to 34-year-olds in the 2022 presidential election run-off. 

The EYF’s Mason believes that far-right parties are doing well with young voters by focusing on the issues that matter to them. 

While their parties are best known for their strong opposition to immigration, particularly from Muslim countries, they have also addressed topics important to young voters such as housing and job security – often adopting redistributive policies more typically associated with the economic left. 

“I think there’s a lot of ways in which young people feel that traditional parties in some cases have failed them in terms of securing good-quality jobs, securing access to housing, security and mental health provisions,” Mason said. 

According to the 2021 Flash Barometer of the European Parliament Youth Survey, political issues that respondents would most like to see prioritised include tackling poverty and social inequality (43 per cent), combating climate change and protecting the environment (39 per cent) and addressing unemployment or a lack of jobs (37 per cent).  

The TikTok Gen Z coalition 

Nativist leaders are actively targeting young voters on these issues on social media, including the 134 million European active users on TikTok. 

Far-right political figures like Italian MEP Silvia Sardone, French MEP and RN President Jordan Bardella, and Polish MEP Patryk Jaki have taken to the platform, tapping into an invaluable source of access to young voters.  

Mason says those videos and messages are pushing the political discourse further to the right, but it remains unclear whether the record numbers of views their content is garnering will be converted into actual votes. 

Paweł Serka, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the far-right parties' widespread use of social media and what he termed their language of “passion and authenticity” may be paying off. Students he has spoken to often mimic their rhetoric and talking points, he says. 

Bardella, for instance, has used social media to call on Europeans to turn out at the elections in an average of one TikTok video a day. The 28-year-old’s account, which boasts more than 1.1 million followers, showcases him being cheered on by young voters on the campaign trail and calling on voters to turn out at the European elections. 

Politicians from elsewhere on the political spectrum have sometimes been reluctant to engage on the platform – or prevented from doing so by institutional policies – due to concerns about its Chinese ownership. The European Parliament, the European Commission, and the Council of the EU banned TikTok on work devices last year, citing concerns over possible user data collection by the Chinese government. 

TikTok is the essence of Gen Z communication – it’s about images, not text. They won’t go and listen to a politician speaking for 30 minutes. That’s super unrealistic.

Réka Heszterényi, Secretary General at JEF Hungary in charge of promoting youth engagement, said MEPs are missing out on a valuable tool for outreach among Gen Z voters. 

“TikTok is the essence of Gen Z communication – it’s about images, not text. They won’t go and listen to a politician speaking for 30 minutes. That’s super unrealistic,” she told The Parliament. “And the far right gets this right.” 

Despite the TikTok ban, Heszterényi believes MEPs in their individual capacity should do more to counter these narratives. “We know that algorithms amplify these far-right messages because if they keep users on the platform, then it will have a wider outreach,” she said. 

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