Expanding Democratic Participation: A Symbolic Vote for a More Inclusive European Governance

By Amedeo Gasparini 

Ahead of the European elections on June 9th, the upcoming symbolic vote organized by ECIT Foundation, Voters Without Borders, and Stand Up for Europe presents an opportunity to advocate for a more inclusive European democracy. Scheduled for April 26th, in Brussels – on the esplanade of the European Parliament and in Place de la Petite Suisse, close to ULB-Solbosch – the event aims to highlight the importance of extending political rights within the EU. Volunteers are free to join and will be asked to hold a symbolic vote on three demands, while a parallel symbolic vote will be held in Paris, Berlin, Bologna, Geneva, and London to celebrate International Voting Rights Day. An online symbolic vote will also be open until June 9th, when a full report on the results of the symbolic vote will be published and sent to the newly elected MEPs.

On the symbolic ballot, voters will find three questions. At the heart of this initiative lies the question of whether 16-year-olds should be granted the right to vote in European elections, echoing recent developments in Belgium, Austria, Malta, and Greece on the subject. With proposals to standardize the voting age across the EU Member States, the promotion of youth participation in political decision-making processes should enhance the very notion of political engagement and democracy across the EU and encourage younger generations to be even more active in shaping their future.

Potential benefits rely also on encouraging political awareness and representation of the European youth’s concerns, such as education, employment, and climate change. However, concerns regarding external influence on potential 16-year-old voters and possible insufficient political maturity underscore the complexity of this issue. Democracy, however, is built on trust, and an EU that wants to be solid and at the service of its citizens cannot ignore the youngest members of society. In 2023, Belgium reduced the voting age for the upcoming European Parliament elections to 16, aiming to enhance democratic participation among young people. A positive initiative to strengthen the notion of popular democracy and citizenship.

The second question on the ballot relates to whether to extend the rights of EU citizens residing in other Member States and stand in the election. Efforts to enhance inclusivity and integration through expanded voting and candidacy rights are met with apprehensions regarding national identity and conflicts of interest. A dilution of the concept of citizenship linked to the concept of nationhood is possible from this perspective. However, political inclusivity, along with the reinforcement of democratic principles and a stronger compliance with the fundamental freedoms in the EU, are consistent with the spirit of an even closer EU.

The final question pertains to the extension of political rights to all residents, regardless of citizenship status. Extending political rights to all residents should increase inclusivity and integration, leading to a more heterogeneous representation of interests, and possibly a further step towards more efficient social cohesion. However, one has also to acknowledge the challenges related to legal implementation and constitutional frameworks necessitate careful deliberation, but what substantial proposal does not involve overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles?

These three questions need answers. As we commemorate the 110th anniversary of the symbolic vote by French women, it is crucial to reflect on the evolving landscape of democracy and representation in the EU today. In the face of external threats to democratic institutions, the promotion of inclusive governance stands as a fundamental pillar of resilience within the EU. To assess the health of the EU democratic processes and the legitimacy of its institutions, the Union must focus on and deal not only with the external threats, but also on the thorny issues on the domestic front, starting with the issue of abstention.