Why the EU Referendum Matters for Young People

Young people are, we are often told, the least likely citizens to be registered to vote and ultimately go to the polls on Election Day. Of the 6 million yet to have registered for the upcoming EU referendum, slightly over a million of those are between the ages of 18-25. This problem has potentially been exacerbated by the government’s recent decision to abolish the ability of universities and colleges to register their student body en masse. However, cutting through all the scaremongering of an impending World War Three, a Britain awash with immigrants, or the benefits of EU bananas, there are clear reasons why the referendum really does matter for young people, and why it is critical that we make our voices heard on June 23rd.

  1. Free Movement

Today’s young people, wrote Alex Jackson back in February, are part of a ‘jet-setting generation’. For millennials, free movement across EU borders has been a constant part of our lives. If you are one of the 200,000 UK students to have benefited from studying abroad as part of the Erasmus scheme, you will have experienced first-hand the real benefits which such freedom brings. There are a lot of ‘no one knows’ and ‘it depends’ from both camps over what any future arrangements will be in a new relationship with Europe. Similarly with regards to holidays, ‘Remain’ argue that Brexit will herald the end of cheap ventures abroad as a result of higher flight costs, burdensome visa applications, and excessive roaming charges on mobile phones. The EU has certainly been instrumental in curtailing such costs. However, it is equally important to remember that such arrangements can often be the result of bilateral agreements between countries, and may therefore be somewhat safeguarded in the event of a Brexit.

Jeff Djevdet via Flickr
  1. Immigration and Security

The drawbacks of this free movement principle are manifold; as Brexiteers illustrated just yesterday, it prevents the UK from deporting foreign criminals and restricts our ability to control the numbers of people entering the country. UKIP have also recently made a rather tenuous link between EU immigration and the Brussels terrorist attacks back in March. Needless to say however, free movement is a two-way street, and young people here in the UK certainly benefit from this measure. As the most cosmopolitan generation and favourable towards immigration, the debate for many young people over free movement is more about security versus the benefits of studying, moving, and working abroad. Whatever the priority, the result is going to have a real, tangible impact upon our future in both these areas.

Leon Yaakov via Flickr
  1. Turnout among Young People could Swing the Result

It took me somewhat by surprise when I first learned that young people are actually the most pro-remain age group, with middle class (ABC1) 18-24 year olds 86% in favour of the UK’s continued participation. For a group so often associated with disillusionment towards formal politics, it is surprising that the Brexit campaign has failed to capture such zeal for change. But whatever the reason, it is clear that the result in two weeks’ time will certainly be skewered by the extent of young people’s participation. As the graph below illustrates, if general turnout is held at 66% (the same as the previous General Election), young people are both less likely to vote than their older counterparts, and far more favourable toward ‘Remain’. Just last week, former Labour leader Neil Kinnock warned that Brexit will win ‘by default’ if turnout is low; no more so is this true than among young people.

Neck and Neck: Projected split across age groups if same turnout is replicated from the 2015 General Election. Source: YouGov

Young people are not apathetic, as conventional wisdom alludes. Too often is participation in the formal political processes of electoral cycles and party membership taken as the bar for measuring the extent of political engagement. Young people are, for example, the most engaged group when it comes to petitions and demonstrations, as clearly seen in the recent junior doctors’ strikes. All the more reason, therefore, for young people to cast their vote on June 23rd. This referendum is beyond party politics; presenting the single most important opportunity to shape our country’s future for at least a generation. Whatever the outcome, it is ultimately the youngest in our society who will feel the most durable impacts of its results, and it is therefore incumbent upon us to ensure we have the final say.


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