Can the EU be too much of a given? eupinions survey data indicates that young people are more pro-European, but less likely to vote than the rest of the population – which points towards a serious participation gap. At the same time, they have their own motivations and priorities for the future of the EU.

From 6-9 June 2024, almost 21 million young Europeans will be eligible to vote for the first time, among them 5.1 million young Germans. In theory, this will render the youth vote more powerful than ever before. These potential voters have never seen a Europe without the most significant EU achievements, such as the abolition of border controls in the Schengen area (1995), the introduction of the Euro (2002) and EU enlargement with the admission of 10 Central, Southern and Eastern European countries (2004).

At the moment, however, there are few signs of new beginnings or rejuvenation in dealing with the multiple crises faced by the EU. There are unheard young voices – as well as unused potential for Europe. Representative eupinions survey data (a Bertelsmann Stiftung project) show that young people aged 16 to 25 are more pro-European, but, at the same time, less likely to vote, by their own indication, than the rest of the population – and for different reasons.

To show that young potential voters tend to be more approving of the EU in general, compared to older age groups, we first examine a fictional referendum (Fig. 1) from the eupinions survey. In Germany, as well as across all 27 EU member states, a clear majority indicates their preference to remain part of the EU. Among European and German youth, this share is notably higher with almost four out of five in favour, in contrast to two-thirds of the older age groups.

Only 8% of Germans aged 16 to 25 would vote for a so-called Dexit, in contrast to respondents aged 26 to 69, where a quarter of survey respondents would vote to leave the EU. It is noteworthy that among younger respondents, the second most common answer out of three choices was, in fact, not to leave the EU, but to abstain from voting (14%). For most young people eligible to vote, the EU appears to be a status quo they want to preserve.

Asked to evaluate the general development of the EU, people under 26 again show a similarly pro-EU pattern, although the full picture is more negative and nuanced. Even young people in Germany predominantly think that the EU is not moving in the right direction, but this share is still eight percentage points higher than among older people.

Across the EU, a similar picture emerges, although the difference between young and old is even larger, with more than half of young people thinking the EU is moving in the right direction (Fig. 2). This general tendency is stable over time. Despite large fluctuations, younger people consistently hold more positive views towards the EU than older citizens.

Furthermore, younger respondents more frequently express their satisfaction with democracy in the EU. Across the EU, this share amounts to 69%, compared to 55% for older respondents, and in Germany to 67%, compared to 53% of their senior counterparts.

Despite largely pro-EU sentiment among young people, voting in the European elections does not seem to come as naturally to this age group. Although a lot is at stake for the EU, youth voting intentions are relatively low (Fig. 3). Especially now, with democracy widely under pressure, this is serious.

Only 57% of 16 to 25-year-old German respondents are planning to vote, compared to 62% aged 26 and older. This discrepancy becomes even more significant when demographic conditions across large parts of Europe are taken into account. Even if all eligible voters cast their vote, the share of people below 30 would be less than 15%. To exert substantial influence on EU politics, young people need to vote more often than the other age groups.

In comparison, overall voter turnout in the 2019 European elections surpassed the 50% mark for the first time since the 1990s. In Germany, turnout was even higher at over 60%. Nonetheless, voter turnout at European elections still lags behind mobilisation for national elections. For example, during the 2021 German national elections, 76.4% of eligible voters cast their vote. But there were significant differences across age groups in the 2019 European elections. Among Germans aged 18 to 29, turnout was between 54% and 59%, which is below the population average.

Another important insight for the upcoming elections in June comes from analysing the number of undecided voters. When the survey was conducted in March, just under a quarter of eligible voters were still undecided, not only with regard to the question of whom to vote for, but whether they would vote at all.

In a December 2018 eupinions poll, ahead of the last European election, 68% of German respondents were planning to vote in advance and 19% were undecided. In the end, voter turnout was 61.4%. Whether party campaigning, as well as campaigns led by European institutions and civil society, will manage to mobilise undecided voters will only be decided on election day. Still, our data offers a peek into why people want to vote in the upcoming elections. Again, a clear gap between the age groups is evident.

Although all votes within each member state have the same weight, the voters have very different motivations. While some strive to shape the direction of the EU, others prefer to use their vote to express disapproval with current politics and punish their national government.

In general, German respondents appear to be motivated primarily by the wish to shape the EU’s direction and to support the political party they feel closest to. About 40% name being able to influence who becomes the next Commission president as an important motivational factor. This is despite the fact that the Spitzenkandidaten system, in which the lead candidate of the strongest political group in Parliament becomes the designated President of the Commission, has been circumvented by appointing Ursula von der Leyen after the 2019 elections.

A notable difference between young and older voters is that fewer respondents in the 16 to 25 age group appear to be protest voters who are motivated primarily by expressing disapproval with current politics (23% compared to 30%). In contrast, more people aged 16 to 25 who consider voting want to express their approval of current politics at the ballot box (30% compared to 20%).

Non-voters’ motivations may be just as diverse. Are they deciding against participation based on disinterest? Do they reject all political offers? Or do they feel their vote does not matter and will not influence EU politics in any meaningful way? A key to these unanswered questions could lie in their differing priorities. If non-voters believe their issues and perspectives are underrepresented in public discourse, their motivation to become involved may suffer – in elections and beyond.

Among German respondents, there are significant differences between the age groups when asked about prioritising future EU tasks, but also one big commonality. Not least because of the ongoing war in the immediate EU neighbourhood, German respondents of all ages largely agree that securing peace should be a high priority (Fig. 5). However, the question of priorities still reveals large discrepancies between age groups. The topic of migration, which has long dominated EU discourse, is prioritised by almost every second respondent aged 26 or older, second only to securing peace. Among younger respondents, migration ranks as the sixth most important issue, in a tie with fighting inequality. This is an intriguing finding, especially given that migration is painted as the central theme of election campaigns for certain political parties.

This suggests that a migration-focused strategy only resonates with approximately a quarter of young voters. Additionally, younger people perceive the necessity of economic growth differently. Only 14% of respondents aged 16 to 25 mention it as a priority, compared to 27% of voters aged 26 to 69. Instead, they prioritise citizens’ rights (50%, compared to 32% of older voters) and combatting climate change (42%, compared to 31%).

A functioning democracy in Europe depends on the participation of all its citizens, especially of those societal groups that are underrepresented in the political discourse. That includes young people.

The sometimes-large differences across age groups, their differing attitudes towards the EU, voting intention and motivation, as well as their political priorities, show: To move youth issues higher up the EU political agenda, it is crucial for young voters to participate by voting, writing to members of Parliament, and getting involved in parties and civil society. If young people do not decide for themselves, decisions will be made for them.

On the flipside, institutions and political parties cannot afford to be indifferent. Young people are the future of Europe and many of them are interested in actively shaping it. The EU and its member states should create more space for their voices to be heard – in the run-up to the election and beyond.

About eupinions

eupinions is an independent platform for European public opinion. We collect and analyse data on European public opinion and comment on what Europeans think about current political issues and megatrends.​

Every quarter, we collect samples from each EU member state in 22 languages. ​Our data is representative with regard to age, gender, education and country/region.​

eupinions is a Bertelsmann Stiftung project. The data is collected by Latana.​

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This data has been presented in collaboration with #NowEurope.

Methodology note

The findings presented here are based on a survey conducted by Latana for the Bertelsmann Foundation between 5-12 March 2024 on public opinion across 27 EU Member States. The sample of n=13,241 individuals was drawn across all 27 EU Member States, taking into account current population distributions with regard to age (16-69 years), gender and region/country. To obtain census representative results, data was weighted based upon the most recent Eurostat statistics. The German sample consists of n=1,837 individuals. An estimation of the overall design effect based on the distribution of weights was calculated at 1.27 at the global level. Calculated for a sample of this size and considering the design effect, the margin of error would be 0.9% at a confidence level of 95%.