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WORLD

Elections Are Not Wasted on the Young in EU. Some Nations Allow 16-Year-Olds to Decide in June Polls

BRUSSELS (AP) — Youth leader Rareș Voicu remembers like it was yesterday when he went to the polls five years ago for the European Union elections in his Romanian hometown of Brăila.

The problem was that he was 16 years old at the time and not eligible to cast a ballot. Once his family went into the voting booths, he knew he could not.

“I had done so much research on the parties and on the candidates, and I knew who I would have voted for,” Voicu said. “So I know firsthand the frustration, and how frustrating it can be as a young person when you’re 16, when you’re 17.”

Now 21 years old, Voicu is leading a drive to make sure as many 16- and 17-year-olds as possible go to the June 6-9 polls in the five member states of the 27-nation bloc that allow them to vote. In the other nations, the minimum voting age still stands at 18, like it is in the United States.

The voting age is set at 16 in Austria, Belgium, Germany and Malta and 17 in Greece. In Belgium, voting is mandatory.

Nateo Carnot from Celles in southern Belgium, who is 16, won’t have to deal with the issue Voicu had, but he knows that teens like him will have to step up and overcome political apathy, even helplessness.

“Youth sees politics as something from up high — men in big ties in big cars that won’t listen. So there is a disinterest,” he said. “Whatever we do. It won’t change anything. They won’t listen,” is the reasoning of many.

Yet lowering the bar to 16, as Belgium did for these elections, shows improvement, Carnot said. “It shows politicians start to show interest in us and realize that we are mature enough to express our voice.”

Some see the lowering of the minimum voting age as a ploy to get an easy vote from unwitting teens who have barely outgrown childhood. Voicu vehemently disagrees.

“When you’re 16, when you’re 17, you often have the right to make medical decisions for your own body. You have the obligation to pay taxes if you have a job. You can enter civil partnerships or you can get married. So you have all of these duties, all of these obligations,” he said.

“What we’re asking for is for the democratic rights of young people to match their responsibilities. We think it’s only fair,” said Voicu, who also wants more countries to lower the voting age.

Their demands can be heard by the exceptionally young, too, since late teens can also run for office in many nations. The United States has a minimum age of 25 years to run for Congress, but most EU nations allow anyone 18 years or up to represent their electorate in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, and Brussels.

Kira Marie Peter-Hansen was shocked when she found herself elected to the European Parliament on a Danish Independent Greens party ticket five years ago, at barely 20 years old. “I never expected to get elected, so I never planned for that either. And it wasn’t part of my childhood dreams.” Yet, she was thrown into EU politics at the deep end.

Working the hallowed halls of Parliament early on not only had her puzzled but EU politicians and staff too. “People thinking I’m an intern. And then checking my badge,” she said. “The first half year was super difficult and confusing.”

But she grew into it.

“So the last time I was the youth candidate. Now, I am the leading candidate while being young,” Peter-Hansen said.

If there is one thing she has learned over the past five years, it is that there are few specific youth-versus-elderly issues that need specific approaches.

“A lot of younger (and) a lot of older voters are concerned by the climate crisis, the nature crisis. So there are some places where we can meet across generations,” she said.

Many members of extreme right and populist parties expect that the youngsters will unite with the elderly in rejecting the traditional powers and parties that have ruled the EU Parliament for so long.

“They look at the future and the future looks grim,” said Tom Vandendriessche of the far-right Flemish Interest party, which is part of the Identity and Democracy Group.

“How could they have trust in these traditional parties … that have been governing us for decades and who brought us into this mess,” he said, mentioning the issues of migration and terrorism. “They are looking for answers which are different.”

Manon Aubry, a member of Parliament from the hard left France Unbowed party, pointed to different issues for the young to get riled up about, such as social exclusion, inequality and poverty. Aubry insisted the elections are the ideal moment to stand up to anyone from the Hungarian prime minister to the French president to the head of the world’s largest luxury goods company.

“It’s the only time, the only place when you, me, any youth has as much power as Viktor Orban, as Emmanuel Macron, as Bernard Arnault, one of the richest guys in the European Union,” she said.


By RAF CASERT Associated Press

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