Binding the Youth Vote: Belgium's Mandatory Shift in EU Election Participation


By Katarina Stanojevic

The regulations governing European elections, as outlined in the European Electoral Act of 1976 amended by Council Decision 2002/772, alongside varying national regulations, determine the minimum voting age for European elections (Mańko, 2023). These regulations serve as the framework within which Member States operate, guiding the electoral processes and ensuring uniformity in key aspects across the European Union (EU). However, within this framework, individual Member States retain the authority to establish the minimum voting age within their national legislation (Eichhorn & Bergh, 2020). According to Article 8 of the European Elections Act, individual Member States retain the authority to establish the minimum voting age within their national legislation. Notably, Austria, Germany, and Malta have set this age at 16, Greece at 17, while the remaining Member States have set it at 18 (Mańko, 2023)


Belgium, as a Member State of the EU, has also been at the forefront of discussions surrounding the voting age and electoral participation. In 2022, Belgium enacted a law that expanded voting rights to include Belgian citizens and other EU nationals residing in Belgium, aged between 16 and 18, in European elections (Mańko, 2023). This legislative change marked a significant departure from the previous voting age requirement and aimed to empower younger citizens to participate in the democratic process. Currently, the Belgian Constitutional Court has suspended a provision in the law (see ruling nr. 35/2024), which makes voting mandatory solely for adults and not for 16- and 17-year-olds. This ruling means that voting will now be compulsory for individuals aged 16 and 17, with the possibility of sanctions for non-compliance. However, the implementation of this law has faced legal challenges and ongoing debates regarding mandatory voting and associated sanctions. The specific sanctions that minors will face remain undetermined by ministers. For adults, failure to appear at the polling station in Belgium initially carries a risk of a fine. Furthermore, some scholars have reported that there is an increased concern regarding the need to explain voting regulations to hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren, especially given the proximity of the elections to exam periods (Clapson, 2024; Constitutional Court, 2024). 


Historically, the voting age has been a subject of debate and reform, reflecting societal changes and evolving attitudes towards youth participation in democratic processes. Despite historically low youth voter turnout in EU elections (Mahon & Laliberte, 2023), studies suggest that granting 16-year-olds the right to vote can positively impact their engagement with politics (Leininger, 2024). Proponents of reducing the voting age often cite the potential benefits of enhancing political involvement and satisfaction with the political system among young adults (Eichhorn & Bergh, 2020). These proponents argue that engaging individuals at a younger age fosters long-term civic engagement and encourages a sense of responsibility towards shaping the future of their societies. Conversely, opponents of lowering the voting age raise concerns about the maturity and capacity of younger individuals to make informed electoral decisions (Eichhorn & Bergh, 2020).


One of the key factors influencing the debate on the voting age is the empirical evidence gathered from countries that have implemented such reforms. In recent years, several countries, primarily in Europe and South America, have permitted 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in certain or all elections (Eichhorn & Bergh, 2021). These experiences have provided valuable insights into the impact of lowering the voting age on political engagement and civic attitudes among young people. Empirical studies conducted in these regions have consistently shown positive outcomes associated with enfranchising 16- and 17-year-olds. Research indicates that granting younger individuals the right to vote often results in increased interest in politics, higher likelihood of voting, and greater institutional trust (Eichhorn & Bergh, 2021). Furthermore, longitudinal studies from Austria and various Latin American countries suggest that these positive effects may persist over subsequent years, leading to sustained increases in voter turnout (Eichhorn & Bergh, 2021). In addition, register-based surveys involving thousands of adolescents have been conducted to assess the effects of granting 16-year-olds the right to vote on their political engagement and behavior (Leininger, 2024). These studies have revealed that eligible adolescents demonstrate a higher propensity to engage in political discussions and utilize voting advice applications compared to their non-eligible counterparts (Leininger, 2024).


In conclusion, looking ahead, the upcoming 2024 European elections are poised to be significant milestones in the democratic landscape of the EU, as certain polls indicate potential gains for right-wing and Eurosceptic parties (Mańko, 2023; Quaritsch, 2024). The outcomes of these elections have the potential to reshape EU politics for the next five years and influence the direction of policies enacted by the European Parliament (Quaritsch, 2024). The debate over the voting age and electoral participation reflects broader discussions about democracy, citizenship, and youth engagement in political processes. While challenges and concerns remain, the evidence suggests that lowering the voting age can have positive effects on political engagement and civic attitudes among young people. As countries continue to grapple with these issues, it is essential to consider the diverse perspectives and experiences of youth in shaping the future of democratic societies.


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