Europe matters, but how do we tell young people that?


Picture of Jamila Aanzi
Jamila Aanzi

Member of the Dutch Appeal Advisory Committee on Childcare Allowance and 2014 European Young Leader (EYL40)

Jamila Aanzi is a European Young Leader (EYL40), a business economist, international political trainer and coach and 2017 Dutch women’s representative to the United Nations

One crucial election down, one more crucial election to go.

The American mid-terms are just behind us. The elections were closely-watched as the results were supposed to indicate how US citizens feel about this tumultuous presidency and if Republicans would lose their majority in both of the House and the Senate.

It perhaps comes as no surprise that not everyone in the United States is happy with the current administration. But, unintendedly, President Trump has helped foster a new wave of activism and political engagement in America and abroad. It is demonstrated in the many marches across the country and in the number of women and young people who decided to run for office this time around. They ran, and they won, resulting in what is being called the ‘rainbow wave’. Diversity won, and I hope it will win again in the 2019 European Parliament election.

The countdown clock has reset: there are five months left until we get to elect a new European Parliament, which will also result in a new European Commission. Some say this might be one of, if not the, most important European election in history. The world looks different since we last cast our ballots in 2014. It is the first EP election since Trump got elected, since the British voted for Brexit and since the refugee crisis hit some EU member states especially hard. While those member states are recovering, economies are strengthening and employment is rising, the scars remain.

Diversity won, and I hope it will win again in the 2019 European Parliament election

While we understand the gravity of this election, that sentiment may not be universal. Fears of a low voter turnout are real, especially among young people. During the last EP election, there was an overall turnout of just 42,6%; only 27,8% of young people between 18 and 24 years of age voted, versus 51,3% of their 55+ years old counterparts. Both turnouts are low, but it shows a significant difference. And we see this difference all over the world. Why is that?

The outcome of an election will affect the older population more directly because they are retired, or soon to do so, and are more reliant on public provisions like healthcare. Questions like ”Who gets to decide what age I get to retire at?” and ”Will I have a decent pension?” are very relevant and urgent questions for this cohort.

In your 20s, you are not thinking about your retirement. You want a decent and affordable education. You want a cheap place to live. You want to be able to travel. You also want a well-paid job so you can afford all of that and maybe save a euro or two.

If you are a business student, classic dream scenarios have you settled on Wall Street or the City in London. The City is no more – companies are moving their offices to Amsterdam, Frankfurt, or elsewhere. Staying in London after Brexit will no longer be beneficial. Suddenly, the future of business students is spread all over Europe instead of just one city.

Based on my personal experience as a business student ending up as a trade-unionist and then later in life as a coach on political communication, the European politicians surely have lessons to learn about reaching, communicating and engaging with the continent’s youth.

First, and this is the million-dollar question in every election, how can we connect with and encourage young people to vote? Every election someone makes the mistake of neglecting the young or scrambling too late to address them. Who your target groups are, where to find them and what to tell them should be an ongoing process that continues between elections. Make it a priority: if these young people do not vote in the 2019 EP election, some for the very first time, we risk losing them as a voter forever.

Remember the principle of KISS: Keep It Short and Simple

Second, when you have reached the young voters, know what to say and –more importantly – how to say it. Using words no one understands as part of election campaigns is a common mistake: recently, I took part in Friends of Europe’s high-level roundtable State of Europe with a focus on the organisation’s newly launched project #EuropeMatters. At the event, former prime minister of Finland, Alexander Stubb, announced that he was seeking the Spitzenkandidat nomination for the European People Party. Following this announcement, two gentlemen next to me asked whether I knew what a ‘Spitzenkandidat’ was. These were two highly educated, highly skilled men but words like Spitzenkandidat are just not part of their daily lives, or those of the majority of Europeans for that matter. They are part of the lives of a very small group in the “EU bubble”.

For this reason, it is extremely important to use the words and language that people outside the bubble – the electorate – use. A failure to do so will lead to disengagement instead of engagement: if people you are talking to cannot understand you, it will not lead into a conversation.

Finally, when communicating with young people, make sure your message matters to them and find out what their current or short-term issues are and how Europe could play a role in solving those issues. Remember the principle of KISS: Keep It Short and Simple. In the age of social media, we are constantly subjected to an overload of information, and there is just not enough time to consume it all. And the same principle applies for interacting with other key players of any election, journalists and media.

The language politicians use, the words they choose and the stories they tell matter; it is a position that comes with power and great responsibility. To ensure that the youth will want to be a part of shaping Europe’s future, make us want to listen – and make us want to vote.

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