Why is Europe's youth moving further to the fringes?

Article published on Oct. 7, 2016
Article published on Oct. 7, 2016

Voters all across Europe - young people included - are increasingly rejecting the established political parties in favour of more populist movements on both sides of the political spectrum. But what's making them turn away in such large numbers, and how can the centre try and tempt them back?

In recent elections in Berlin the right-wing party Alternative for Germany (AfD) earned 14% of the vote, proving themselves to be serious contenders to take a piece of the cake in next year's federal elections.

In France, the rise of the Front National (FN) is already well-documented. But young people are apparently among the biggest contributors to FN's increasing popularity: 34% of people under 30 would vote for the FN according to a survey commissioned by the French newspaper 20 Minutes, while in Germany a study conducted by  the German Institute for Economic Research and Humboldt University showed AfD supporters tend to be unemployed men under 30.

All across Europe traditional parties are doing worse and worse in all type of elections, while extreme positions are becoming more popular.  There are plenty of examples from 2016 alone: in Austria, the extreme-right FPÖ practically tied with the Greens in the presidential elections earlier this year. 58% of their voters were under 30 years old, according surveys conducted by institutes SORA and ISA. Meanwhile in the Belgian region of Flanders, Vlaams Belang, an extreme-right party, picked up 13.1% of votes according to a poll commissioned by RTBF-La Libre last September. Spain, by contrast, seems to have moved in the opposite direction - in the recent parliamentary elections, the left-leaning Podemos attained 21.1% of the votes.

Why does youth appear to support new parties? A Eurobarometer published this year may hold the answer:  57% of Europeans under 30 feel their generation has been marginalised and excluded from economic and social life, especially in from countries suffering higher unemployment rates: Greece (93%), Portugal (86%) and Spain (79%).

Enrique Calvet, a Spanish MEP from the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) says that "it is undeniable that disillusion has indeed settled across the spectrum of youth." Calvet, independent MEP, claims that "young people are legitimately demanding political transparency and honesty." Calvet believes that "the traditional party system has become feeble for this new generation of Europeans" and warns about the dangers of excluding Europe's youth from politics: "young people will be drawn to turn their vote towards an illusory concept of change, without taking under consideration the danger they pose to the European project and thus to their own welfare and future."

MEP Siegfried Muresan, Spokesman of the European People's Party group (EPP), the largest group in the European Parliament, shares Calvet's belief: "populist parties have nothing to offer European youth. Their simplistic solutions on complex issues will only end up fostering disappointment and mistrust." 

When asked for a solution to bring back the youth vote, Muresan explains that more needs to be done to explain the benefits of the EU, pointing to ideas such as the Digital Single Market - 800,000 new jobs in the digital sector by 2020 according to the EPP - as well as the Erasmus Plus and Youth Guarantee programmes. However, it will be an uphill climb: the same Eurobarometer cited above reported that 76% of young Europeans have never heard about the Youth Guarantee, while 17% did not know what exactly that is.