Why do young Europeans feel neglected?

Posted on 19. May 2014

by Christopher Wratil

Christopher Wratil

It was two weeks ago that it happened. In Maastricht, four leading candidates from the major party groupings in the European Parliament were discussing their visions for Europe after the European elections. Young people from all over Europe were invited to ask questions for a  90-minute session via live stream, in 13 languages. I missed it, although I am informed about European matters to an above-average degree and am more interested in EU politics than almost anyone else around me.

This story reveals a serious problem: it demonstrates how poor is the standing of the European elections among those sections of the population in a position to identify with Europe. According to the Euro-barometer, that would be young people of between 16 and 30 years of age in particular. They define themselves at least to some extent as ‘Europeans’ and are more satisfied with democracy in the EU than their parents and grandparents, trusting it to a greater extent. In many parts of eastern and south-east Europe, it is actually the case that young people trust the EU more than they do their national governments – and that in times of crisis with up to 50 percent youth unemployment.

Nevertheless, in 2009 in Germany only 27 percent of under-25s voted in the European elections, while for the elections to the Bundestag in the same year the corresponding figure was 60 percent. Unsurprisingly, there were practically no young people elected to the European Parliament: just two members of the European Parliament are under the age of 30. In the German Bundestag as it stands today, there are still more than ten elected members from this age group.

In January 2014, the Körber Foundation’s FutureLab Europe conducted an online survey into the reasons for this abstinence on the part of young people. In this case, the group of respondents surveyed was even more European than usual, as the FutureLab network consists predominantly of young people of an international mind-set, with a positive attitude to Europe and in many cases also politically active. More than half of those surveyed had at some time lived abroad and nearly 60 percent of them intended to vote in the European election – i.e. around twice as many as normally would in their age group. Here there can be no lack of interest and sentiment for the EU.

What is all the more surprising is that even people who describe themselves as ‘young Europeans’ consider that they do not have enough information about the European elections. When quizzed about what could be done to make them personally more likely to vote, respondents cited more information about the elections in general, more education on the matter in school and greater communication efforts on the part of the Parliament or its parties and members. These considerations far outstripped calls for institutional reforms, such as direct election of the Commission President or the Commissioners.

At first sight, this desire for information seems paradoxical: when it comes to access to debates, committee meetings and documents, the European Parliament is more transparent than most national parliaments. But is this transparency of any use if no-one can see through it?

The courage to present unknowns with subtitles

My belief is that what is missing above all is a broad-based and mobilising debate on EU legislation, informing young and old alike and likely to persuade people to vote. Nobody denies that in Germany the level of media reporting on the EU has increased due to the Euro-crisis. However this is reporting in the true sense of the word. It is not a genuine debate. It represents the large-scale rehashing of event-linked facts, delivered in German.

When has there ever been a simple discussion of EU directives on German television – unless there is a bailout fund being unveiled? When do we not hear the sterile and uniform statement that “the EU Parliament intends to vote against the budget”, but actual parliamentarians expressing their distinctive positions instead? And when do we people talk shows with politicians from Greece and Spain, from Finland and Slovenia, as opposed to German-Greeks, who go to visit their grandmother in Athens every now and again?

The politics of the EU are indeed hard to understand if there is never anyone from France approached for a comment, if a Pole is never allowed to speak and if we are happy to be informed about the mood in Greece at second hand. Just as it is difficult to understand the Great Coalition without also having to listen to SPD chairman Sigmar Gabriel. Every TV show in Germany must offer equal-handed political representation – only oddly enough, it is possible to comment on the EU without this equal-handed approach extending to Europe as well.

We do not necessarily need a European public, but we do need more local debates with speakers from all over Europe. This is where the media have a contribution to make by displaying the courage to present people we do not know, also using subtitles, if necessary. We have to welcome this if we want to be genuinely and honestly informed.

Integrating the younger generation into such debates is simple, as the subjects that interest us are mainstream in society. It is hardly surprising that in the survey the topics employment market, education, the environment, citizen involvement and mobility are high on the list of the most interesting EU topics. In those countries with a particularly high level of youth unemployment there was an even sharper focus on the employment market and education and training aspects. There is nothing outlandish about this – it is simply what concerns most of the people in Europe.

What we need in this connection is more debate and not just reporting – with people from all over Europe and from all age groups.

This article is part a part of a series of reflections by young Europeans, prepared in cooperation between FutureLab and Süddeutsche Zeitung Online. To read the original click here.