Analysis: Generation Z and the European elections

For the first time, the majority of a politically mobilised and media-savvy age cohort will have the right to vote in a crucial election for the future of Europe

As Trinity students deliberate on the future makeup of their student union, a number of decisive ballots are set to take place in the near future which have ramifications that go far beyond Campus – and, for that matter, these shores.

This year’s spate of referendums and local, European, and general elections will be the first exercises of democracy via the ballot box in four years, and the first ever opportunity to vote for many reading this article.

In particular, this year’s European elections mark the first in which the majority of what is considered “Generation Z” – that is, those born between the late 1990’s and the early 2010’s, will have the right to vote for their Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), and in turn the power to influence the future direction of the European Union (EU).

June’s elections represent a crossroads for Europe, at a time of concerns over the ongoing wars in Gaza and Ukraine; immigration and the continued rise of the far-right; the cost of living and inflation, and so many more issues mattering to individual member states and the Union as a whole.

Also up for discussion is how the EU has responded to these problems, and what direction it will take once the new Parliament has been elected and the new Commission assembled.

Our generation has watched the world turn before our eyes, but mostly without an official voice in public affairs. The last of this generation were only being born as the Great Recession took its course, whilst Brexit had become part of normal lexicon whilst most of us were still at some stage of school. Even when Greta Thunberg became the global face of the “Fridays for Future” climate movement, it seemed like few were taking seriously the ambitions and hopes of the still-largely disenfranchised youth.

In these elections, our generation will have the right to be heard. Whether they choose to shout or whisper, however, is another question.

The last few years have seen a wave of events that have galvanised the attention of Generation Z, from the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the killing of George Floyd in 2020, to the ongoing wars in Ukraine and Gaza.

Alongside the all-consuming effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the recent rioting that plagued Dublin in November, younger people have been particularly exposed to socio-political developments in a way that distinguishes many of them from past generations, thanks to the spread of information through social media.

It feeds into a narrative that Generation Z are not only politically mobilised, but also particularly conscious of the need for equality, justice, peace and human rights – the cornerstones of European values. Those carrying the mantle of the European project would certainly hope so, at least.

Certainly, at least on a macro level, there is evidence to suggest that Gen Z supports a more united, progressive, and forward-thinking EU. According to a Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) and ThinkYoung study from 2022, two-thirds of the cohort believe the EU should involve them more in its public affairs.

Similar numbers believe in the EU taking more authoritative steps to protect LGBTQ+ rights and to clamp down on climate change, and on member states that fail to respect human rights and democracy.

“More than 70% of Europe’s young people want their politicians to better communicate the role and impact of the EU”

The same study also found that more than 70% of Europe’s young people want their politicians to better communicate the role and impact of the EU — a sign that some don’t fully understand its purpose, or believe in its capabilities to tackle the problems our generation faces.

Indeed, the EU faces a great challenge in the coming months as it tries to present itself as being on the side of a voting-age Gen Z.

Even in Ireland, where support for the Union is consistently among the highest in the bloc, views on the EU’s response to various issues are mixed.

A recent Ireland Thinks poll, released earlier this month, showed a majority of 18-34 year olds here (53%) rating the EU’s performance on the ongoing crisis in Gaza as ‘very bad’, with three-quarters affirming that their view of the Union has in some way disimproved as a result.

Young Irish voters are also largely unimpressed by, or at best ambivalent to, the EU’s performance on the climate crisis, with 46% judging the response to be in some way ‘bad’, with another 35% being neutral on the question.

Though the bloc’s performance on the economy and on Ukraine was received much more positively by the youth in Ireland, this is not a blanket sentiment across the continent, where worryingly enough a rise in support for far-right parties has been identified among young voters in many countries.

In the recent Dutch elections, the Party for Freedom (PVV), led by ‘Nexit’ supporter Geert Wilders, won a larger share of the vote among the youngest demographic compared to the national average, according to official exit polls.

Throughout Europe, in countries both east and west, far-right parties with anti-EU and anti-immigration policies have pocketed significant swathes of support from under-35’s, and are now hoping to capture the hearts and minds of an influential Generation Z.

This trend has been attributed to various factors, many of which stem from local and regional issues, be it widespread unemployment, housing crises or quality of life – all of which are being tapped into by populist parties.

Curiously enough, however, it appears that the classic right-wing talking points of opposition to the EU or to an ‘influx of foreigners’ are not the primary attractors of support for such parties among Europe’s youth.

This may be due to the fact that in the west, young people have grown up together with a more culturally and ethnically diverse set of peers than did their parents, whilst those in the bloc’s eastern countries have grown up in economies benefiting from two decades’ worth of EU membership and investment.

Therefore, it mightn’t be the EU that Generation Z has a problem with, but if the institutions fail to get to grips with the many problems they do have, it risks losing the trust and faith Europe’s youth has in its ability to ensure the security, equality and justice they desire, both within their own countries and beyond.

Evan Skidmore O’Reilly

Evan Skidmore O’Reilly is News Co-Editor for the 70th volume of Trinity News. He is a former Deputy News Editor, and is a current final year Business and Politics student.