MECHELEN, Belgium — Meet Europe’s newest electorate, aged 16 to 18.
On a recent rainy day in the Belgian city of Mechelen, north of Brussels, a gaggle of teens gathered in a history classroom not to learn about the Flemish Renaissance or French Revolution — but to become the first Belgians under 18 to register to vote in next year’s European Parliament election.
“We are affected, so why wouldn’t we be able to vote?” reasoned 17-year-old Selle Haemhouts. “Politicians really need to listen to what young people say.”
Last year, Belgium became the third country in the European Union to lower the voting age to 16 for the European elections. The result is a wave of Gen Z voters that is poised to break over the country — or at least try to land with a splash.
Soaring participation by young people drove voter turnout in the 2019 European election, a Eurobarometer survey found. Similarly, the youth vote helped rock last year’s midterm vote in the United States.
With the addition of 16- to 17-year-olds, 892,233 potential new voters will be eligible to make themselves heard for the 2024 ballot, according to Belgium’s interior ministry.
Were they all to turn out, they would outnumber the total votes the Flemish far-right Vlaams Belang party received during the 2019 election.
“It doesn’t happen so often, that Belgium is among the first in something,” said Annelies Verlinden, Belgium’s interior minister, to a smattering of awkward laughter among the teens sitting in a tight semicircle under a garland of European Union flags.
Kristof Calvo, the Green Belgian lawmaker behind the effort to expand the franchise (pictured left of Verlinden above), explained the measure was passed by simple majority, but added it would require the consent two-thirds of the Belgian parliament to do the same for federal, regional and local elections.
“That can happen in a democracy: Sometimes you succeed, sometimes you have to wait,” Calvo told the teens.
Though a 2015 European Parliament resolution recommends EU countries grant the vote to all citizens over 16, only Austria, Malta and now Belgium have extended the vote to that age group (Greece allows voting from age 17).
“You could also consider it an experiment,” Calvo said.
If the handful of teens POLITICO spoke with at the event are any indication, Gen Z voters in Western Europe truly are more progressive than their elders, as research has indicated.
Their No. 1 concern was climate change.
“Policymakers today don’t feel the consequences like we will,” said 16-year-old Helena Deglain. “They’re going to hear us whether they like it or not.”
Branko Van Beveren, 15, said he mostly cares about climate change “because I like polar bears and I don’t want them to drown.”
Migration and security also topped the list of issues they said would drive their decisions.
“If you can make an informed decision at 16, you should go out and vote,” added Noa Suykens, who is 16.
Asked how they intend to inform themselves for voting, the teens said they’d “Google it” or turn to social media.
“Talking to parents, family, teachers,” Suykens elaborated. Sources of information should be taken together — and with a grain of salt, they agreed.
For political parties hoping for a boost, however, the message was at best mixed. A question about which political party they might vote for was met with blank looks.
“I don’t have any idea which party to vote for,” Haemhouts confessed.
Van Beveren added, “I don’t know which parties there are in the European Union.”
“Parties are a bit overrated,” concluded Deglain.