21st May 2022


Young Brits are pro-EU, but will they vote?

  • 'Younger Britons clearly favour a continuing UK relationship with the European Union' (Photo: Harry Watko)

British parliamentary elections are set for 7 May. Britons will go to the polls amid rising public support for the anti-European Union UK Independence Party and calls for the Conservative government of David Cameron to bring forward to 2016 a promised referendum on the country’s continued EU membership.

Four decades after the 1975 referendum in which the British electorate voted by a two-to-one majority to join the EU’s predecessor, the European Economic Community, Britain’s relationship with the Continent remains a divisive issue in UK politics.

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The generation that voted to join the EEC has now turned against the EU. And Britain’s future relationship with Europe may well depend on the views of its Millennials - Britons born after 1980. But this younger, generally pro-EU generation, has a history of not voting.

Age is a stark determinant of British views on the EU and Britain’s continued membership in that organisation. Just 40 percent of those ages 50 and older hold a favorable view of the European Union, compared with 71 percent who voice a positive judgment among those ages 18 to 33, according to a Spring 2014 Pew Research Center survey.

Given such sentiments, it is not surprising that 59 percent of British Millennials favour the UK remaining in the EU, while 49 percent of those ages 50 and above want to leave.

Idealistic goals

British Millennials buy into the idealistic goals that led to the creation of the European Economic Community in 1957. Fully 63 percent believe that the EU promotes prosperity. And 52 percent see the EU as a world power. Older Britons, if they ever held those views, are now disabused: just 45 percent say the EU fosters prosperity and only 37 percent voice the view that the EU is a leading power on the world stage.

Moreover, British Millennials are less likely than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations to complain about the EU’s defects.

Only 48 percent see the EU as inefficient and just 47 percent think it is intrusive. Britons born before 1964 are far more likely to see Brussels as unproductive (70%) and meddling (72%).

This is not to say that younger Britons back an ever more centralised Europe. Just 33 percent would give more decision-making power to Brussels. But even this tepid support for a stronger EU distances their views from those held by older Britons. Only 11 percent of the generation that voted to join the earlier iteration of the EU now favor giving it greater power.

Poor turn out

As positive as British Millennials may be about the EU, their electoral clout is limited. They represent just 26 percent of the adult British population, compared with the 47 percent share accounted for by the oldest group. Moreover, voter participation by 18 to 34 year olds in the United Kingdom has consistently and significantly trailed participation by older generations.

Whatever British Millennials’ views are about the EU, if they fail to turn out to vote in May and in any subsequent EU referendum, their opinions will carry little electoral weight.

Younger Britons clearly favour a continuing UK relationship with the European Union. And, as the generation that has to live with Brussels in the future, their views carry special significance. But in an ageing society, where older Britons have both a demographic preponderance and are more committed to exercising their right to vote, Millennials’ claim to shaping the future is tenuous.

Their EU consciousness may not necessarily trump EU scepticism on election day.

Bruce Stokes is director of Global Economic Attitudes at the Pew Research Center


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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