On 25 May 2019, Slovakians will have the opportunity to vote in the next European Parliament (EP) elections. According to numerous polls Slovaks perceive the European Union (EU) as good thing and, in general, their sentiments are positive. Yet, the citizens do not vote in EP elections. 

Already, it is much discussed if the Slovak citizens will be more active and the turnout will not be as 5 years ago the lowest across whole Europe (13%). Motivational campaigns, led by organizations like GLOBSEC and other civil organizations, EU representation offices as well as political campaigns of EP candidates have begun. Yet, the questions stand, why young people, including young professionals, in Slovakia, on average, are not motivated to vote in EP elections? And, how to overcome this hurdle? 

In November 2018, two Focus group discussions took place with 39 students from 2 Slovakian universities outside of Bratislava. The conversations were designed to trace the factors that prevent young people to vote in EP elections and possibly identify venues to approach these Slovakian citizens. Topics included general attitudes towards the EU, EU citizenship and activism on European level. 

Main findings 

Young people continue to perceive the EU as a union and being an EU citizen through the prism of economic dimensions, such as the participation of Slovakia in the single market, in the euro area and overall in the economic integration. More positive aspects are recognized, in connection, with freedom of movement and opportunities to work and study elsewhere and with the EU cohesion and structural funds, all material benefits. As Slovakia is a small European country, some young people also see the benefit of being part of the EU for support and protection.  

In the meantime, young Slovaks point at the stereotypical assumption of EU’s excessive bureaucratization as one of the main negatives resulting from the EU (for debunking of this “myth” see here). Some continue to refer to migration, although the country itself it not experiencing high numbers of neither legal nor illegal migration flows. Others see EU’s regulations as coming from above and limiting the choice of the Slovakians.  

On the whole, young people see the future of the EU as very uncertain and while they pointed at Brexit and possible other Exits, they were not prepared to find way or contribute actively in ensuring a good future of the Union. Their statements were rather Eurosceptical. 

Most interestingly, young people, continuously express that the EU is not able to bring equality between East and West, which leads for “low wages but high prices” for Slovakians. This theme would come again and again when the discussions moved towards the concept and perceptions of EU citizenship. While some young people are able to define EU citizenship as equal opportunities for all EU citizens, there is an entrenched feel of inferiority vis-à-vis citizens from the West. Thus, young people tend to “see” East-West divides in the EU today. Such understanding of the world around them, consequentially informs a lot of their opinions about the EU, its institutions, existence and on the superiority of the national citizenship. 

While, the negative perceptions of the young people may be somewhat worrisome, a much bigger challenge is the presence of indifference on the topic altogether. Expressions like “I’m not interested at all,” “I don’t have a comment on this topic” or “EU citizenship means nothing to me” were not the exception. Such lack of engagement even on a more basic level, can be easily used by anti-establishment and anti-European movements. 

And, so, many of the young people in the discussions either do not see themselves as or are not interested to be actively engaged at EU level. For example, in one of the groups from 15 young people only 3 claimed that they are active citizens. But most felt that Brussels and its politics are so far away that citizens simply have no way to influence anything. Therefore, why vote at EP elections? 

Thus, based on the outcomes of the discussions with young people, the following reasons can be assumed as contributing to the paradox between the overall pro-European sentiments expressed in public opinion polls and the reality of engagement and actual participation: 

  • lack of political culture and European awareness 
  • understanding the EU, solely through personal experiences (e.g. through economic benefits and freedom of movement) 
  • shallow understanding of EU citizenship 
  • problem to identify what means active citizenship 
  • shared European values and obligations, as an integral part of being in the EU, are not seen as priority (simply not discussed) 

What can be done? 

Education in the meaning, functioning and importance of the EU continues to be an essential tool for increasing young people’s awareness and knowledge. Debunking ‘myths’ and untruths should start with basic education on European affairs as early as pre-school age. This should be a priority for every Member State. 

While education can provide a strong base of knowledge, the everyday communication of the European institutions’ work should be simple and relatable. The message should resonate to all citizens, regardless of their socio-economic status or geographical location (e.g. urban/regional, East-West). As this research showed, young people related to what they saw around themselves—new roads, euro as a currency in their wallets, travel without borders. 

Relating the EU to everyday lives has its advantages and enhanced experiences, can contribute to increasing the feel of belonging as EU citizens. Some initiatives like Erasmus+ or free railroad trips around Europe are already focused on young people. Similar “experiences” for other citizens should be strengthen, so opportunities to feel an EU citizen increase. 

Lastly, the lack of interest all together among young people in Slovakia can be possibly related to the less effective channels of communication with them. Social media is a tool that although is used by EU institutions, the use is often rigid, too generic and not interesting for the young people. 

Note: The focus groups moderation and the report for Slovakia was prepared by Peter Ondria and were part of a GLOBSEC’s led European project titled “EP Elections and Beyond: Participations of Citizens at All Levels”