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European millennials confront populism: “They don’t even promise very realistic things”

Posted on: 07.11.2018

By Arneta Matuzeviciute, Paula Solanas, Miroslav Elenkov, Barbora Janauerová


“What is populism according to you?”. Most young people don’t have a clear answer to one of the most crucial questions for the next elections at the European Parliament. The rise of populist parties across member states has become a hot topic over the past year, but this word hasn’t made its way to many youngsters that will also cast their vote in May 2019. Only 28 percent of citizens aged between 18 and 25 years old participated in the last European elections, a trend that remained unchanged since the last campaign. Will populism shake this up? Brussels’ busy streets offer a canvas of the thoughts amongst younger generations.


Lea doesn’t know what populism is, but she is sure that it will affect her life in some way. Just as this 18 year old from Belgium, there are many young people in Europe that are not familiar with populism and still believe it is something to be concerned of. “Now messages are trying to get more to people’s sentiments rather than reason”. This is how Benjamin (20 years old, Belgium) perceives the change in political discourse that is being led by parties across the continent such as the French National Front or the Freedom Party of Austria.


“It is mostly the method to speak that uses identity politics and the fact of belonging to the certain group. This strategy is used by politicians to make emotional connections to their voters”, Solyna and Nadia suggest. They are 22 years old and live in Brussels and believe that European Parliament has “to go closer to the citizens for people to vote”


“How do you fight against hate?”, Sarah wonders. She is a 17 year old from Brussels and 2019 will be her first opportunity to ever cast a vote. In her opinion, migration has unfairly become a political target for far right parties. “The people coming to Europe are not asking for anything, I would like that future politicians help them and hear their voice”, she insists. However, Isabelle (25 years old) also believes that national parties have played an important role in this phenomena by using the European Union as a goat scape for internal affairs. “Blaming it on someone else is very catchy and easy”, she adds.


Silvia thinks populist parties get by using simplistic messages. “These movements tell people what they want to hear, so sometimes they don’t even have to promise very realistic things. They talk about more money and no work, so that people will be happy and believe what they say”, the 25 year old Italian states. Her friend Giuglia (27 years old) has the same concern. “We’ve seen that already in Italy, Austria or Hungary”, she says.


Rising trend


Last March the far right party League was the most voted coalition in her country with 17 percent of the suffrage and a discourse highly focused on the fear of migration. On the other side of the coin, the anti-establishment speech led by the left populist Five Stars Movement -now governing in coalition with the League- has actually proven to be effective on younger voters. Local surveys showed that the party founded by Beppe Grillo won the support of 31 percent of those aged between 18 to 22 in the past national elections in Italy.


This concern has also impacted European millennials’ outlook on the upcoming elections in May. Isabelle (25) and Michele (24) are originally from France but are currently doing internships in Brussels. “Many people think the EU is too far above our heads and they don’t realise it touches them on a daily basis”, Michele says. This sentiment has become prominent amongst younger generations and even discouraged them from voting. “I hope most of my friends will vote in the EU elections, but I am inside the bubble. It depends very much on their background. They (the young people) have no idea about what is going on in the EU.”, Isabelle agrees.


Sara Cardoso from Portugal is 17 years old and will still be unable to vote next spring, but she doesn’t oversee the importance of the next elections. “The European Parliament is an institution, which is responsible for making laws, so basically all our lives depends on it. It is really important to know what they are doing”, she says.


But these are not the only factors that come into play. Fake news and the way information is presented also bothers young voters when it comes to choosing who is in power. Nikola (31 years old from Bulgaria) says that people should start asking themselves questions: “Is this achievable? What will be the consequences?”.


Andrey Novakov, Bulgarian MEP from the EPP group , agrees that we have many examples of fake news that are far from truth, starting from Brexit. “It was communicated with nonsenses and lies but very good sounding lies so people believed them and voted for leaving the EU”, Novakov says. In his point of view, in order to prevent fake news, authorities must present facts in the most understandable human language.






However, this task also called the attention of the media. Giuglia (27) is from Italy and considers that journalists should “double check everything a million times before they publish it to make sure that sources are reliable”. “Information should always have context, you can’t just take a few sentences and make it the truth. Especially if you are young and you never voted before, you don’t really know what is at stake. You tend to believe everything that is online is true”, she emphasizes.


Isabelle (25) from France also believes the media doesn’t put enough stress on EU policies. “I think national media should write more about the EU,” she considers. “Education also plays a role in this. I haven’t learned much about the EU in high school,” Michele (24) admits too.

Awaken society


Populism is relatively flexible when it comes to political traditions and economic systems. It is neither strictly right nor left, socialist nor conservative. Instead, it often combines elements of capitalism and socialism – tasted with autocracy and democracy.


Some academics see populism first and foremost as a type of leadership in which the charismatic leader communicates directly with the people, bypassing or abolishing representative institutions like parliaments. This is mostly based on the experience in Latin America, where a charismatic leader like Hugo Chávez could propel his party to prominence.


“We could become a part of the game populists are playing. We really should to take a stronger position in the field of public communication,” 22 years old student from Belgium Romane says.


“If we really want to prevent populism true facts have to be communicated better by our governing institutions to present the facts in most understandable language because the decisions European Parliament makes affects human lives every single day”, Nikola Taskov (30 years old Bulgarian) adds.


Actually, some young people don’t believe populism is necessarily a bad thing. “It is bad how political parties are using it nowadays, but populism could become a good thing for the European Parliament. It could help to communicate in a certain way explaining certain things to more common people”, Solyna and Netty (22 years old) from Belgium stress. “The European Parliament may enter into discussions with people, explain more about what they are doing, try to listen to people’s needs and what do they think Europe can to do for them”, they continue.


Sara Cardoso from Portugal is 17 years old and will still be unable to vote next spring, but she doesn’t oversee the importance of the next elections. “The European Parliament is an institution, which is responsible for making laws, so basically all our lives depends on it. It is really important to know what they are doing”, she says.


Despite of the low voting turnout, many young Europeans do understand the importance of the European Parliament. “The EU is important for things that national states cannot effectively solve themselves, like for example climate change,” Michele (24) says. Populist messages, however, have made it increasingly difficult for them to access valuable information. The millennial generation has a clear message for future MEPs: the ball is in their court now to start talking loudly and clearly about what are the important issues for Europe.