2024 European elections: Who are young Europeans voting for?


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Author: Jesús Palomar i Baget, Profesor de Ciencia Política, Universitat de Barcelona

Original article: https://theconversation.com/2024-european-elections-who-are-young-europeans-voting-for-232058


Over the last five European Parliament elections, young people’s participation and preferences have changed significantly in response to various socio-economic, political and cultural factors. Of course, the European Union is politically and socially diverse, meaning this evolution has not been uniform across Member States – it reflects a huge range of local concerns and socio-economic contexts.

Importantly, for the first time all citizens over the age of 16 were eligible to vote in Austria, Belgium, Germany and Malta, and all citizens over the age of 17 in Greece, thus opening up the elections to new, young voters.

Young people’s interest in the EU

While support for the Far Right is rising among younger generations, this growing and influential trend remains, for the moment, on the edge of European politics.

In fact, young people in the European Union show an overall growing interest in political and social issues that directly affect their future. Key concerns include climate change and environmental sustainability, which drives strong support for green policies and parties promising firm action to combat global warming.

Social justice and equity are also priorities, with an emphasis on tackling economic inequality and discrimination. Young Europeans value accessible, high quality education, as well as decent employment opportunities in a rapidly evolving labour market.

Migration and human rights are critical issues, with notable advocacy among the young for refugee and migrant rights. Democratic reform and government transparency are also a concern for this generation, which values greater citizen participation, and accountability in political decision making.

A history of the youth vote in EU elections

In 1999, youth participation in the European elections was lower than other age groups. The general trend towards abstention likely stemmed from a disconnection from European institutions, and their perceived lack of impact on citizens’ lives. Those who did vote tended to support traditional and moderate parties, with less inclination towards extreme or fringe movements.

The 2004 election showed a slight improvement in youth turnout, driven in part by EU enlargement and the resulting interest in European integration. However, the general preference for traditional parties persisted.

The 2009 elections saw a more noticeable change, as the global financial crisis had generated a sense of dissatisfaction and disillusionment among young Europeans. This led to an increase in support for minority and emerging parties, including green parties and populist movements which offered alternatives to austerity policies and promised more radical reforms.

In 2014, the trend towards support for alternative parties was consolidated. Youth participation increased, driven by campaigns specifically targeting young people and greater use of social media. Green and left-wing parties gained ground, reflecting young people’s concerns about climate change, social justice and human rights.

The 2019 election marked a high point in this evolution. Youth turnout reached record levels in many member states, highlighting a renewed interest in European politics, with young people voting largely for parties advocating climate action, social justice and democratic reform. In many countries, green and progressive parties achieved historic results, indicating a significant shift in young voters’ priorities.

The youth vote in the 2024 European elections

It is still too early to discuss the youth vote in this year’s European election with any certainty, though 64% of young people expressed their intention to vote in the latest Eurobarometer. The figure has gone up considerably in some areas: in Denmark, for instance, 82% of young people surveyed were planning on voting. An increase in turnout, however small, could suggest that young Europeans have remained engaged in the continent’s elections.

While many young people still support progressive and green parties, the right and the far-right surge also owes much to this age group. This signals a significant polarisation of the youth vote in the EU.

On one hand, young people have focused on supporting political organisations that address their interests: sustainability, the future of young people (education and employment), human rights, positions on ongoing wars (especially in Ukraine and Palestine), and global policies on the management of immigration and refugees. In Italy, for example, Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia) has triumphed, but the youth vote has actually begun to shift to the left.

On the other hand, defending national interests within the framework of the European Union has also played an important role, leading to significant support for far-right and populist groupings, especially in countries where these movements have already gained momentum or are in government.

In Germany, polls indicate that the far-right AfD party has gained five points in support from the 16-24 age group. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (Rassemblement National) is the most popular choice in the 18-34 age group.

In Spain, 22% of voters aged 18-24 stated in the latest poll that they would vote for the far-right parties Vox (12.2%) and Se acabó la fiesta (9.8%). For comparison, Spain’s left-wing parties – the Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), Sumar and Podemos – had the combined support of 24.2% of the electorate in this age group.

The rise of ultra-conservative and extreme right-wing parties has been especially pronounced in the EU’s founding countries, which may explain their appeal to younger voters. Far-right parties are also increasingly adept at using social networks, where they accumulate millions of followers, far outstripping other political formations. This – along with the European Parliament’s 2021 youth survey stating that young people mostly use Instagram (64%) and TikTok (25%) to get information – partly explains their impact on young voters.

In any case, the data shows the importance of the youth vote in European elections. European institutions are aware of this reality, and ran campaigns to encourage participation, highlighting the usefulness of the EU institutions and promoting information and transparency for this segment of society.

Euroscepticism, which in many cases leads to abstention, is generally more common in older generations. Young people tend, on the whole, to be more pro-European, regardless of the who they vote for.