European Sentiment on a ballot: What the European Parliament election will reveal about the EU’s future

The meaning of the European Parliament election result lies not just in voter intention and turnout, but is also deeply linked with the participation of young Europeans

May 4, 2024, Brussels, Belgium: A group of young girls sit in the EU parliament chamber with their European Union Flags during an open day to celebrate the birthday of the European Parliament in Brussels. Celebrating the European Parliament’s birthday in Brussels, visitors gained special access to the Parliament chambers and the iconic building itself. The open day featured informative stands on the upcoming European Parliament elections, fostering political engagement and dialogue. Against the backdrop of European democracy, attendees immersed themselves in the legislative process, symbolizing transparency and civic participation. The event showcased the diverse voices shaping the future of the European Union, embodying the spirit of democratic values and cooperation. (Credit Image: © Michael Currie/SOPA Images via ZUMA Press Wire
A group of young girls sit in the EU parliament chamber with their European Union Flags during an open day to celebrate the birthday of the European Parliament in Brussels, May 4, 2024
Image by picture alliance / | Michael Currie

It feels odd to celebrate Europe Day this year. Even the countries that joined the European Union 20 years ago – such as Poland – are only marking the anniversary with low-key events. Not only are Europeans living under the shadow of a protracted war in Ukraine, and the bloc’s economies are slowly re-emerging from a year of stagnation. The other problem is that it is far from certain how Europeans feel about Europe today.

In many ways, the election result – which will become clear in exactly a month from now – will be a verdict on the current state of European sentiment. But those looking for a clear answer might be up for disappointment. We will likely see a mixed bag of good and bad news, leading to competing interpretations on the EU’s mandate for the next five years based on voter intention and turnout. Alongside these however, reactions to the election should not ignore Europe’s future – the youth – no matter how small the voter base.

Voter intention

Observers’ default interpretation will be to look at the political breakdown of the next European Parliament – ie, which political group has won votes, which has lost them, and which groups could form majority coalitions on specific issues.

In January, ECFR projected that the EU’s main legislative body would move to the right, making it – for the first time in history – possible for right-wing parties (from the centre-right to the far-right) to outvote others. We expected the two populist-right groupings to significantly boost their number of seats. That would make it almost certain for one of them to become the third largest political force in the European Parliament, ahead of the liberals; and, taken together, they might even overtake the centre-left. That, in turn, could pave the way for the EU’s political turn to the right on, for example, climate, migration, trade, and other policies.

However, ECFR’s polling did not account for various important developments that have happened since the start of the year. Massive anti-fascist protests took place in Germany. Investigative revelations about the far-right’s links to Russia put the credibility of these parties in question in several member states. At the same time, some of the main pro-European forces (especially in France and Germany, the countries that send the most MEPs to Brussels) have launched more assertive campaigns: French president Emmanuel Macron delivered a new “Europe speech”, while in Germany the main parties have held major events to kick off their campaigns.

With these developments, the scenario of a far-right surge in the next European Parliament may be avoidable. But whether it materialises or not will largely depend on turnout. Our latest public opinion poll (also from January) suggested that voters of the far-right Alternative for Germany in Germany were more mobilised than those of the mainstream Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union or Social Democratic Party; while in France, voters of Macron’s party and the party of his far-right opponent Marie Le Pen were mobilised to the same, elevated, extent. It remains to be seen whether recent developments will give pro-European forces a mobilisation margin over their rivals.

Voter turnout

This makes turnout in the European Parliament election another way to gauge European sentiment. Historically, it has been notoriously low: five years ago, only half of eligible voters bothered to cast ballots – and this was the highest turnout in 20 years.

The dream of pro-European parties is to fend off the far-right surge with heightened mobilisation of progressive Europeans. Electoral victory and a high turnout would then serve as a double proof of a strong belief in the European project, after a traumatic period in which the covid-19 pandemic, as well as wars in Ukraine and Gaza, have put the strength of the union to a major test.

But one should also be prepared for three radically more challenging – and not unlikely – scenarios. Firstly, there could be a bitter-sweet victory for the progressives if they win with a relatively low turnout by successfully demobilising far-right voters in critical member states. Secondly, the inverse may happen and the far-right may score an exceedingly good result, should many pro-Europeans stay at home. In this scenario, progressives could still console themselves that the result does not accurately reflect the prevailing mood. Lastly, a much greater shock could grip Europe if the far-right perform strongly even with a high turnout – which would signal a real change in European sentiment.

Young voters

Looking at history, it would be hard to argue that a high turnout among young Europeans could radically change the electoral result. Yes, they are usually less (and often, much less) likely to vote than older generations, leaving substantial room for mobilisation. But even then, voters under 30 account for just a sixth of the overall European electorate. Five years ago, their share among all voters increased only minimally – despite a much greater increase in their turnout compared to other generations. 

But young Europeans are not just a voter group – they are also the trailer of Europe’s future, offering a glimpse of what it might become a decade or two in the future.

Young Europeans are not just a voter group – they also offer a glimpse of what Europe might become a decade or two in the future

In 2019, the highly mobilised and usually progressive young gave the pro-European side many reasons to celebrate – and provided the commission with a strong mandate to focus on climate policies. But that was the heyday of the Fridays for Future movement, which brought many young people not only to the streets but also to politics. It was also before the pandemic, in which many young people excessively suffered from restrictions (some studies suggest this has fuelled their distrust in the political system). It’s doubtful whether they could become as strongly mobilised this year.

And even if they are, it’s far from given this would benefit the progressive parties to the same extent as it did five years ago. Because, in the meantime, far-right parties in several European countries have rejuvenated their image and managed to attract many young voters. At 29-years-old, Jordan Bardella leads the list of Le Pen’s National Rally in France and is an idol for many young men. In several other countries – like Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden – the young (especially young men) are an important voter base for far-right parties. And they are often new voters, who start their electoral adventure by choosing the far-right and therefore may continue doing so in the future.

Therefore, how the young vote and whether they vote at all, should be another major ingredient in the post-electoral interpretation of European sentiment. It also makes them a strategically important electorate that should not be neglected, or prematurely written off, by pro-European parties. It would be ominous, and highly ironic, if this time Europe’s progressive orientation were to be defended not by the young – but against them.

This article is part of the European Sentiment Compass: a joint partnership and initiative of ECFR and the European Cultural Foundation.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.