Throughout its 42 years of European Union membership, the United Kingdom became well know for its anti-European attitudes and behaviour. Whether it was due to its politics of non- alignment in deeper integration, or to general popular mistrust of European institutions, the UK quickly gained the reputation of acting as the ‘awkward partner’. With the run up to the May election, the nature of the relation between the UK and the EU will be again hold the centre of attention, given David Cameron’s promise of an in or out referendum. So far, public opinion coverage has tended to focus on the older anti- European electorate, and its contribution to busting UKIP results. Other segments of the electorate, such as younger voters, rarely feature as the focus of media attention. On the 26th February, the Aston Centre for Europe and InterLand, at Aston University, provided young voters with a platform to voice their concerns, as well as a thorough academic discussion on the young people practices of engagement/ disengagement with European affairs.
The keynote speech of the conference, by Simona Guerra (University of Leicester) focused on young people’s attitudes towards the EU in a time of economic crisis. In particular, she tackled the question of what determines young voters’ support for the EU? Simona Guerra argued that income and education definitely affect attitudes towards the EU. Young voters are more supportive of the EU when they are educated, as they understand the asset of a supranational organisation. In addition, young voters tend to have a positive opinion of the EU, especially when domestic institutions do not perform well. This tendency is connected with the expectation that the EU could improve the quality of domestic institutions. On this basis, it is interesting to note that despite being the social group that has been hit the hardest by the financial crisis, young people cannot be labelled as the new Eurosceptics. However, feeling European and identifying with the EU do not equal supporting it. Although young people will be more pro- European than the rest of the UK society, their level of active engagement with the EU remains low, as does their voting intentions. In another example, young people in Croatia have the lowest level of turnout for EU elections but are generally supportive of the EU. This apparent contradiction can be explained by the fact that the EU did not meet Croatians’ expectations in improving their unemployment rate. What can therefore be done to increase young people’s support for the EU? According to Simona Guerra, the EU should try to create opportunities at the national and personal level, as well as work on higher level of identification.
Another very important highlight of the conference was the reporting on a series of workshops developed by NGOs on the topic of young people and the European Union. Selina Brown (Little Miss Creative) and Anisa Hagdadi (Beatfreeks) work towards empowering young people and providing them with a voice through art and social activities. While presenting their recent activities, they also underlined the existence of a deep political education problem in the UK, (in particular, the lack of teaching on voting procedures), as well as the need to make young people co-creators of policy-making. Both NGOs concluded that young people do care about politics, although they feel unwanted in this field. Politicians want to develop projects for them, but no one is ready to engage with them. As expressed by Jill Robinson (InterLand), young people are heard, but not really listened to.
Their conclusions were confirmed by Stuart Fox (University of Nottingham), Nat Copsey (Aston University), Paul Coppeland (Queen Mary), Nicholas Startin (Univrsity of Bath), William Patterson (Aston University), David Harley (Aston university) and Anneliese Dodds (European Parliament)’s contributions, who view this generation as a very distinct one, marked by a high level of marginalization, be it political, social or economic. They reviewed the NGOs’ conclusions by stressing the inability of young people to find meaning in politics, as well as a way to get involved in this field. Although fully aware of the vital interest of their participation, young people do not know how to participate in the national and European political life. As argued by Stuart Fox, this is the reason why young people love and hate politics at the same time. To resolve this problem, speakers suggested focusing on the promotion of EU policies in which young people are deeply interested in (such as human rights and the environment). Another interesting way to encourage young people’s participation in the EU would be to raise awareness among young people on how its policies influence daily lives.
 Further information on the European Commission funded conference ‘Young Voters’ Views of the European Union at a Time of Change’ can be found at http://www.aston.ac.uk/lss/research/research-centres/aston-centre-europe/news/ace-events/2015/young-voters/