A Rising Generation Of Eurosceptics

October 30, 2015 | By Neil Howe

This editorial originally appeared in Forbes.

Polish youth made waves during last Sunday’s Parliamentary elections, when two-thirds of voters ages 18 to 26 cast their ballots for the three right-wing parties, leading the opposition to a landslide victory. This is no isolated incident: Over the past few years, radical political parties have been gaining traction with young voters across Europe. Disillusioned by the European Union, unemployed in their home countries, and tempted to emigrate elsewhere, European Millennials are losing faith in liberal mainstream leaders and gravitating toward the same nationalist sentiments that once tore Europe apart—putting them at odds with older generations who consider nationalism an unpleasant memory best left in the past.

For the past two decades, European Millennials have been known for their globalist attitudes and open-mindedness on most political issues. Holding more liberal social views than previous generations, younger Europeans have traditionally steered clear of parties that tout nativist platforms and have been long associated with older voters.

But this is now changing. The turning point was Europe’s Parliamentary elections last May. Unexpectedly, young people were a key source of nationalist party support.National Front’s Marine Le Pen, for example, won the votes of 25% of French 18- to 24-year-olds. This year’s national elections produced similar results: In Germany and Greece, far-right, Eurosceptic parties were the most popular among the under-30 crowd. Even in the United Kingdom, the share of Millennials supporting UKIP—while still small—has recently doubled and is now nearly on par with their support for the Green Party.

High unemployment rates at home have forced many Millennials to emigrate to find jobs—both to other EU countries and elsewhere. From 2010 to 2015, according to the United Nations Population Division, 18 out of the 40 European countries experienced negative net migration rates. In one survey, 40% of Portuguese 18- to 30-year-olds said that they would consider emigrating for employment reasons. In Bulgaria, the mass exodus of youth gives rise to the joke that the most traveled road is the highway to Sofia’s airport.

Rising immigration (most notably, the recent massive influx of refugees from Syria and other Middle East countries) has only heightened Millennials’ frustration. In fact, a Demos study of nationalist party supporters on Facebook found that 16- to 20-year olds were twice as likely as the 50+ to cite immigration as the reason for their support. Sentiment is so strong that the head of the youth union for Germany’s conservative political coalition (the CDU and CSU) announced his opposition to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s permissive immigration policy. Though this doesn’t mean that most young Europeans are anti-immigration per se, many feel that securing their own economic future, now so precarious, should come before worrying about others.

Youth disaffection expresses itself differently by region. While it feeds the growth of right-wing parties throughout the North, it mainly benefits the growth of left-wing parties (for example, Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece) in the South. Overall, the countries with strongest support for extreme parties are those like Greece and Bulgaria where economic outlook has worsened the most, where fertility rates have fallen the most, and where youth unemployment and emigration rates have risen the most.

Millennials see these extreme parties as a fresh alternative and an opportunity for a new start. In most European countries, according to Pew, 18- to 29-year-olds are just as likely as their parents—if not more—to think that the rise of Eurosceptic parties is “a good thing” because “they raise important issues that are ignored by traditional parties.” It’s no surprise that Eurosceptic parties are energetically reaching out to young voters. The Young European Alliance for Hope, jointly sponsored by right-wing parties in France, Austria, Belgium, and Sweden, has no real cross-aisle counterpart.

This environment does not bode well for the future of the European Union. The optimism of those who once saw the EU as a pillar of peace has morphed into bleak forecasts of its disintegration. According to U.S. geostrategist George Friedman, Europeans are now “fragmenting… back to the nation-states that compose them, and back into the history they wanted to transcend.”

Attitudes toward the EU reflect a stark generational divide. For Silent Europeans, reverting to a pre-EU world would be a huge step backwards. Nationalism is a force that needs to be suppressed to prevent Europe from redescending into the horrors they recall from their youth. European Boomers share this anti-nationalist sentiment—though for them it’s more an anti-institutional sentiment. According to the World Values Survey, the share of Swedes and Spaniards admitting confidence in their respective nation’s armed forces fell as Boomers entered the 50+ age bracket in 2011. A similar decline in nationalist feeling also occurred in Germany. Over the past two decades, older Germans have become less nationalistic over time, while young Germans’ opinions about their national institutions have grown more favorable.

Older Europeans tend more to see the EU as the “end of history,” the culmination of a struggle to lift Europe into permanent peace and prosperity. Many young Europeans see the EU differently, as an irredeemable Albatross that weighs down their economic prospects and dims their future.  For them, the EU has lost control of history. European Millennials need a vision of the future that works, and the confidence that life will get better—with or without the EU. Will the Eurosceptic parties they’re championing give this generation what they want? It’s unlikely. But for now, European Millennials don’t see any other options.