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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Europe holds breath over possible youth-led far-right wave in European elections

The future of the European Union is being decided as voters across the bloc cast ballots for a new European Parliament. Younger voters may play a big role in the outcome and they may help push up the far-right's vote count.

(CN) — Will the youth-led “green wave” from five years ago turn into a youth-led “far-right wave” this time around in European Parliament elections?

With Europeans casting votes until Sunday in the world's only transnational elections, this has become one of the European Union's most intriguing, and crucial, questions: Are young people in Europe, who came out big for pro-EU green parties in the last European elections in 2019, flocking to EU-skeptical far-right parties?

“There is this perception that young voters are moving toward these parties and to some extent that is the case,” said Stephanie Luke, a European politics expert at the University of Sheffield.

Indeed, recent national elections and opinion surveys show a growing number of young Europeans are attracted to parties on the extreme right, such as the National Rally in France, the Alternative for Germany and Chega in Portugal.

In Dutch elections last November, Europeans were shocked not just by far-right leader Geert Wilders winning the ballot but that his Party for Freedom picked up 17% of the votes of those under 35, the most of any party.

Since then, a flurry of news articles, opinion pieces and studies have focused on this youth trend, which many see as deeply troubling at a time when far-right parties are surging across Europe.

These parties' nationalistic platforms — centered on closing borders to asylum seekers, halting ambitious climate policies, scoffing at globalization, demonizing progressive agendas and decrying the EU's supranational powers — are seen as antithetical to the EU's core principles.

Generally, surveys and election results show a majority of younger voters in Europe continue to prefer left-leaning, centrist and green parties, but a movement in the opposite direction is real.

Overall, far-right parties are projected to do well in the elections, though the big-tent centrist conservatives and social democrats are on track to win the most seats by far. Still, it remains possible that the parliament's mainstream conservatives could join forces with the hard right to form the EU's first-ever right-wing governing alliance at the EU level.

The youth vote, then, could be pivotal.

In May, an Ipsos poll found 34% of French under the age of 30 intended to vote for Jordan Bardella, the charismatic 28-year-old leader of far-right National Rally, in the European Parliament elections.

In Germany, a recent survey found 22% of Germans aged 14-29 backed the Alternative for Germany, up from 12% in 2023. In Romania, a far-right ultra-nationalist party called Alliance for the Union of Romanians is the most popular political force among those aged 18-35, according to surveys. Polling in Portugal, Belgium, Finland and elsewhere tell similar stories.

In a moment defined by global instability, job insecurity and a cost-of-living crisis, researchers believe the far right's focus on national interests and the failings of mainstream policies is appealing to the young.

This appeal is baffling those on the left.

“Yet the puzzle remains: Europe is awash with social discontent but the fury of the masses is fueling a far-right insurgency,” wrote Albena Azmanova, a European politics professor at the University of Kent, in an analysis. “The left is failing to harness that discontent, although its trademark issues — poverty and unemployment —are now more salient for voters than the far right’s flagship of ‘immigration.'”

Azmanova doubted the youth vote will block the rise of the far right.

“In Belgium, Germany, Finland, France and Portugal, younger voters, especially men, have been backing parties of the far right in numbers often exceeding their elders,” she wrote. “In these countries, leftist green parties which overwhelmingly took the youth vote in the recent past have been losing ground.”

For the past decade, the EU has worked hard to boost sagging voter turnout in European elections by encouraging young people to vote. Ahead of these elections, the voting age was even lowered to 16 in Germany, Austria, Belgium and Malta and 17 in Greece. About 20 million young voters will be eligible to vote for the first time across the bloc.

This get-out-the-vote campaign yielded results in 2019 when a surge of young voters helped reverse the downward trend in turnout. Between 1979, when the first EU elections were held, and 2014 turnout consistently fell from 62% to 42.5%. In 2019, turnout bounced back to 50.6%.

In 2019, the surge in younger voters also brought with it strong support for the Greens and pro-EU parties in what was dubbed a “green wave.”

Back then, climate activist Greta Thunberg was the talk of Europe with her Fridays for Future protests. After the elections, the European Parliament and the EU's new chief executive, conservative European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, put fighting climate change at the heart of the EU project by passing an ambitious climate change package, the European Green Deal.

Fast forward five years and so much has changed.

The coronavirus pandemic, Russia's invasion of Ukraine and soaring inflation have turned the EU on its head, harshly exposing its weaknesses and leaving younger Europeans gloomy.

In this atmosphere, far-right forces are thriving by deftly using social media, moderating their image and relentlessly attacking the centrist and left-leaning parties as the source of Europe's problems.

“Look at the far right in Europe,” Luke said. “They've joined TikTok; and they've tried to engage young voters, trying to get them to come out and vote.”

For many younger people with bleak job and housing prospects, the far right can seem like it is prioritizing “what's going on in their lives,” she added.

“They are wanting an alternative and they see this as an alternative,” Luke said about younger voters. “Centrist parties struggle to engage young voters.”

She added that many younger voters turning to the far right are not necessarily in agreement with their more extreme views and stances, such as screeds against Muslim immigrants and bureaucrats in Brussels.

“It's not that young people believe in the more extreme policies these parties put out,” she said. “They have national issues that these mainstream parties aren't dealing with.”

And their lure is growing, particularly among younger males, as far-right parties, such as Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy, ascend to the halls of power and gain seats in national parliaments.

“It becomes less of a taboo; it's not a bad thing to vote for these parties,” Luke said. “It's generally moving away from this notion that the older white male would vote for these parties; it is generally moving from that and there's no longer a hard and fast rule that would say this is the group that would vote for these parties.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow @cainburdeau
Categories / Elections, Environment, Government, International, Politics

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