Disinformation and lack of interest are the main reasons for poor voter turnout in European elections

Europeans need to know how EU decisions affect their lives if campaigns to boost voter turnout are to have any real effect. Messages need to be tailored to each EU country and barriers preventing young people from entering politics need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

The impact of disinformation on the 2024 European Parliament elections and ways to improve civil society mobilisation for the elections, with a strong focus on young people: these were the main topics discussed at the seminar on European Elections 2024: Why vote? organised by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) in Bratislava on 23-24 November.

If we want the 2024 elections to be successful, then all of us - the EU institutions, the media, communication specialists – need to work together to raise awareness in order to fight disinformation and, most importantly, to bring Europe closer to its people. Everyone needs to be involved: young and old, women and men, entrepreneurs, workers, civil society organisations, NGOs, think tanks, associations. Above all, they need to know that these elections are about them, said Oliver Röpke, EESC president.

The discussion highlighted the tremendous value of the tens of millions of people linked to the EESC member organisations across the European Union as they could be both the main target of the Committee's activities and could help mobilise other Europeans to vote.

Why should I vote? It is not enough to call and say use your vote. It is crucial that we start telling people why it is important to vote and explain to them that their vote will have an impact on their lives, stressed Philipp Schulmeister, director for campaigns at the European Parliament. He argued that it's key to look at the specific situation in a given country to get the election message right, because European public opinion is in fact an aggregation of 27 different contexts in 27 Member States.

It is not by chance that our seminar is taking place in Slovakia, the EU country with the unflattering record of having the lowest turnout of any Member State in every European election since it joined the EU in 2004, explained Laurențiu Plosceanu, EESC Vice-President for Communication.

Grigorij Mesežnikov, president of the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) in Slovakia, pointed to the inconsistency of Slovak public opinion on EU membership. Yes, there has been a wave of disinformation, but there is also a simplistic perception of our EU membership. Political actors in Slovakia tend to emphasise only the economic dimension of EU membership. The economy has benefitted strongly from being part of the EU, but non-material benefits such as security and the human rights agenda are deliberately neglected by politicians and overlooked by the population, Mr Mesežnikov explained during his keynote speech at the seminar.

Karin Kőváry Sólymos from the Ján Kuciak Investigative Centre pointed out that Russian propaganda has found a significant audience here, which is not surprising given the conspiracy-minded and pro-Russian sentiments of a large part of Slovak society.

Violeta Jelić, Vice-President of the EESC's Employers Group, compared disinformation to an atomic bomb during the panel discussion on Disinformation and how to survive it in the 2024 'World cup of elections: It undermines people's trust in traditional news sources. It also undermines people's trust in governments and other public institutions. It is usually designed to appeal to our worst impulses, fears and prejudices.

Nick Robins-Early, a journalist who writes for The Guardian among other papers, admitted that it is difficult for him to find a positive side to the increasing access to generative AI services such as Chat GPT in the field of information. These services generate written text, images, audio and video, which can be used for the purpose of disinformation. There is the 'liars' dividend', which means that the proliferation of AI-generated disinformation and content can make the average person suspicious that anything could be AI-generated. It reduces trust and the quality of the information ecosystem.

During the panel discussion on Civil society and elections: winning the hearts and minds of European voters, Miroslav Hajnoš, member of the EESC's Employees Group, raised the difficult problem of mobilising people not affiliated with any associations, civil society organisations or networks. And then we have the problem of those who support the far right, which is strong in social networks. It is based on the opposite values to ours, so civil society has to fight against it.

Laura Sullivan, executive director of WeMove Europe, warned about the role of the citizen-consumer in the campaign. In 2019, when I looked at the websites of the various EU institutions for reasons to vote in the European elections, I think the top one was free roaming. That's pretty good. But if you put it as the number one reason to vote, you are just seeing me as a consumer and not as a citizen!

The complexity of the EU policy-making system and EU jargon alienate young people. But it is not up to young people to try to understand policy. It's up to us to make EU policies relevant to young people's lives, said Katrīna Leitāne, member of the EESC's Civil Society Organisations Group during the panel discussion on Pitching for the future: how to turn out young people.

One of the ideas put forward during the debate was the gradual introduction of a youth quota in the European Parliament, whereby an appropriate number of MEPS aged 18-35 would be established for this age group of voters in the EU. The proportion of MEPs under 35 is 6.6%, which is a long way off the proportion of Europeans in the same age group, which was more than 20% in 2022. The political marginalisation of young people is a potential obstacle to the fair representation of their interests, said Carolina Guerra, co-author of the winning project of the EU Future Initiative 2022 This time I've voted, but am I represented?

This year's Connecting EU 2023 seminar was hosted by the European Labour Authority and organised by the EESC in partnership with the Economic and Social Council of Slovakia, with the support of the Office of the European Parliament in Bratislava.

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