Active citizens: What a time to be alive…… and to be active

European Youth Event, European Parliament Strasbourg 1 & 2 June 2018

Your generation is unique in history in the possibilities that are open to you to become active. The internet has demolished the barriers that earlier generations of young people faced in trying to connect, to learn, or to communicate across borders. The entire world is open to you on a screen held in the palm of your hand.

This weekend you will be presented with hundreds of possibilities to become active, but I want to talk to you about just two things. One is the power that you have individually and collectively and the second is the simplest yet most powerful act that any of you can do, and that is the act of voting.

The first time you begin to lose power is when you think you don’t have any, and many of you may think you don’t have power precisely because you are so young.

But when you vote, all of that disappears. Your vote counts as much as of anyone else. A vote sees nothing but the will of a single human being irrespective of age or of class.

The Brexit referendum saw the will of the young people who wanted to remain overtaken by the will of an older generation that wanted to leave. That of course is their legitimate right but it will be the young generation that will have to deal with the consequences.

An estimated 75% of 18 to 24 year olds voted to Remain, compared with just 39% of those over 65. A majority of 25 to 59 year olds — 56% — also voted to remain. The level of young voter turnout isn’t clear but it appears that they did not vote in the numbers that they could have. What might have happened if they had? The result happened not because the older people had more power, but because they acted on their power by voting.

The European Parliamentary elections take place next year. Ironically, as the power of the Parliament has increased, voter turnout has been in decline — from a high of just under 62% in 1979 — to just under 43% in 2014. And in 2014, just 28% of people aged 18 to 24 voted, with the lowest percentage recorded — just 6% — in Slovakia.

But European Elections matter. They matter because the EP is the co-legislator with the Council, they matter because Parliament now has a big role in deciding who gets the powerful post of Commission President, and they matter because the political composition of the EP will influence the type of Europe all of you will inherit.

The European Parliament wants the voting age in European elections to be lowered from 18, the legal voting age in nearly all EU member states, to 16. While such a decision would ultimately have to be taken by national governments, it is encouraging that there is growing support for such a move.

So if you can vote, do vote, and encourage others to do so. Instead of seeing the European elections as a side show, begin to understand their power and then realise what you and your generation can do to influence how that power is used.

Another act of power concerns your involvement in the European Citizens’ Initiative, an innovation intended to enable citizens to participate in the EU’s decision-making process by seeking support to send a legislative proposal to the Commission for it to act on.

The Commission is currently reviewing it. But the ECI instrument is given life only when it is picked up and used and I would urge you to consider doing so. You cannot effect change without dreaming big.

The Commission indeed recognises the power of youth activism as it is likely to propose lowering the age limit for supporting ECIs from 18 to 16 opening up ECIs to an estimated 10 million new potential supporters across Europe.

I am looking forward to your questions, and welcome the wider opportunity to exchange with participants in the context of the EYE. This event is, most importantly, about giving you a platform, an opportunity to express your views, the views of the new generation of Europeans.

You can watch the video of Emily O’ Reilly’s keynote address here: