Retire from the European Parliament? There are few young MEPs – European Data Journalism Network

“IN THE EUROPEAN Parliament you retire.”

Dr. Nikoleta Yordanova is an associate professor of European politics at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Her assessment is that while Brussels has traditionally been a destination for politicians at the end of their domestic careers, there is potential for a newer generation to rise.

“This is slowly changing as parliament has been given more and more de facto powers in decision-making,” she said.

“But in some countries this has remained the case for a long time,” she added, saying some older politicians saw the European Parliament (EP) as “a retirement place”.

This attitude is likely to have contributed to the average age of 54 for outgoing MEPs, with people aged between 40 and 69 being over-represented.

This is evident from new research Remarkable and a team of journalists from across the EU, as part of the European Data Journalism Network.

Ireland has a higher average age of 58 and Fine Gael’s Maria Walsh (36) is the only current MEP under 50.

With no Members of the European Parliament under 25 and only three Members under 30, the youth population is vastly underrepresented at European level. This is despite the fact that 31% of the EU population is under 30 years old, while 13% is between 18 and 29 years old.

That probably won’t change any time soon. In the upcoming elections, Ireland’s Saoirse McHugh and Cian Prendiville are among the youngest candidates, both in their early thirties.

It is important that young people see their age group represented, says Fabiana Maraffa, EU policy officer for the European Youth Forum. This could “certainly increase that group’s participation in politics and elections.”

This is because “it is easier to believe that people like you can be agents of change.” She added:

“The more political parties include information and topics relevant to youth in their priorities or programs, the more young people will be passively involved in politics and vote.”

Barriers to a younger parliament

There are a number of barriers preventing young people from becoming Members of the European Parliament, including many countries requiring Members of the European Parliament to be older before they can stand in elections.

Although in most Member States people can join once they turn 18, in Ireland and eight other Member States you must be at least 21. There are also three countries with higher minimum ages: Romania (23), Italy and Greece (25).

Belgium used to be like Ireland, but has lowered the age to 18 in recent years.

Given the profile required to gain a political seat in Europe and the fact that there are no MEPs under 25, despite many countries allowing it, this minimum age is unlikely to be the main barrier.

Dr. Kevin Cunningham, a lecturer in politics at TU Dublin and founder of independent polling company Ireland Thinks, said the amount of time it takes to build a political career in Ireland is a significant obstacle.

“We have a combination of election irregularities” at the local and national levels, he said. This “makes the turnover of politicians much slower.”

He cited the examples of Simon Harris and Leo Varadkar who were involved in politics from a very young age and quickly rose through the political ranks.

Although they were both appointed Prime Minister in their late 30s, it took many years for them to build their careers to that point. “It’s taking a long time,” he added.

When the comparison between the ages of MEPs and the general EU population was presented to the European Parliament, a spokesperson said that these groups “cannot be compared in terms of age” and emphasized these minimum age requirements.

They also said that Members of the European Parliament would have been five years younger on the date of the last elections in 2019.

Why representation matters

This is not just a problem at European level. The European Youth Forum’s Maraffa highlighted the strong under-representation of young people around the world:

“Only 2.6% of world parliamentarians belong to the same age group, and less than 1% of world parliamentarians are young and women.”

Yordanova said that MEPs who see parliament as their training ground, rather than a place of retirement, often use it to raise their profile. She said:

“You ensure that you are part of important debates. Your voice is heard.”

Lack of representation could lead to “a divide between the public and politicians”, according to Cunningham of Ireland Thinks.

This was echoed by Maraffa, who said that “trust in institutions” could increase if parliament pays more attention to issues that Europe’s youth want to raise. This includes climate change, digitalization and youth rights.

Maraffa said barriers to youth participation can be removed by prioritizing youth-relevant issues and encouraging young people to vote.

“For young people, the EU elections are not important, not because they lack social involvement or the will to change, but because of distrust in the system.”

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