3 June 2024

What if every young person in Europe votes?

With about 4.2 billion citizens from 64 countries and the European Union going to the polls in 2024, more than half of the world’s population will participate in this enormous democracy experiment. 41 million young Europeans were allowed to vote for the first time in European elections. With Germany lowering the voting age to 16 in European elections, this means 5.1 million first-time voters in Germany alone, accounting for 9.7 % of the voting population.

Allowing more young people to vote is considered an excellent prospect for strengthening democracy – for many reasons. Due to demographic change, young people are significantly outnumbered by other age groups in almost all European countries. Their interests, therefore, often play a lesser role in the election result, although they are the ones who live with the consequences the longest. If they do not make the change at the ballot box, why should they try to? The European success story of peace, freedom, and economic growth is the version of Europe that most of the younger generation born after 1993 grew up with. For many, an existential threat to this is hard to imagine. Yet rising populism, extremism and the brutalisation of debate are threatening the status quo. Fact or fake, debate or violence, united in diversity or united in opposition, rule of law or war – these are the choices on this election ballot paper. We must grow and support a democratic young European story, allowing new generations to discover and defend their Europe by voting.

Hence, young people – especially first-time voters – and those from non-academic backgrounds, who often vote the least, need to be encouraged to cast their vote in the 2024 European elections and be sensitised to the European idea. Yet, these young people are often overlooked when it comes to strengthening political participation. Commonly targeted by right- and left-wing populist factions alike, via TikTok and other social media outlets, these young people are a vital group for securing an inclusive Europe. While some social media companies have good intentions for tackling disinformation, TikTok and personal messengers such as WhatsApp and Telegram are still used to spread disinformation. So how can we reach young people, and turn them into well-informed voters making a European choice on election day?


In early 2024, we embarked on a mission to reach thousands of young first-time voters from non-academic backgrounds who are often left outside the typical European bubble. We asked ourselves, who do people feel the most comfortable talking to, trust the most and pay attention to? They pay attention to people like themselves, people they know and can relate to. They pay attention to what their peers do or say. Therefore, our task was to unite young people who were already organised and support them in working with other young people. Among the many activities we are currently carrying out are workshops in vocational schools and authentic formats such as ‘pizza and politics’ in popular youth bars, as well as music events and even festivals. You need partners to carry out such a time-critical project to reach as many young people across Germany as possible.

The ongoing project strives to build a strong partnership coalition between the over 30 partner organisations, including the European Youth Parliament, the Schwarzkopf Foundation and Meet EU, who provide information and share personal experiences to show the daily connection each and everyone has to the European Union. All activities are broadcasted on social media to create a joint digital movement and are supported by our patrons Anna Lührmann, Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office of Germany, and climate activist Luisa Neubauer with their half a million followers. While the project is ongoing, we have learned three key things:

  • First, being a peer is not defined by age but rather by the authenticity of the experience. To connect with youth, you need to speak their language, which means you share your personal experience and truly understand the struggles of, for example, first-generation citizenship children or a non-academic upbringing. If you connect students with apprentices, you must realise that their lives mainly do not consist of semester breaks and exchange semesters.
  • Second, youth organisations need help pooling resources. They need partnerships with stakeholders on the ground to access long-term funding, community spaces, and support for their events and workshops, which will provide sustained activities and learning opportunities.
  • Third, society and politics need to take youth organisations seriously. Young people are very capable of articulating their interests and needs. We need to listen to young people and trust them more. As a foundation, we have activated our network to help create answers, provide access, and facilitate eye-level debate. But this alone will not bring about cultural change.

How do we know whether we’ve been successful?

When we started our journey, one out of three pupils we asked did not know they were eligible to vote in this election. About every second pupil at least considered voting. For many, Brussels was far away and had no deeper meaning. Now, through coordinated efforts, more than 1,200 vocational pupils and thousands of young people attending one of our network events or following our social media activities have felt a European spark that will hopefully get them to vote and build trust in this historically unmatched political, social, and economic community that we call the European Union.

The upcoming election will show how many young people cast their vote in the end. For a democratic Europe with an expected one-quarter of far-right extremists in parliament, we need a new generation of Europeans who will step in and step up for Europe. We hope they will play their part in the European success story, and foundations can play a pivotal role in fostering an environment that actively supports youth organisations and structures, enabling them to think bigger, be heard better, and unfurl their ideas for the future. There has never been a more pressing time to stand up for the European idea and support those who want to live and implement it.


Nicole Kleeb
Project Manager, #NowEurope, Education and Next Generation program, Bertelsmann Stiftung