Over the last week David Cameron has been touring European countries trying to drum up support for - yet to be defined - reform of the UK's relationship with the EU, ahead of a referendum on whether the UK will remain in the EU set for before the end of 2017. But battle lines are already being drawn with the referendum bill now introduced at Parliament. I am not a Brit, nor have I lived there. But I feel the discussion is indicative of the state of Europe and its democracy. And a referendum in a major EU member state will shape that even further.
Young people are too often cast aside by politicians as they think that they are unlikely to vote. It's a debate defined by political calculation, not a debate about rights of citizens and empowerment. In the May general election, according to Ipsos Mori, 43% of those aged 18-24 voted for Labour and 27% for Conservatives, while for people over 65, the proportions were almost reversed (47% - Conservatives and 23% - Labour). Looking at the Scottish and Irish referendums, we know that youth do turn up en masse if a key question it put to them (in Scotland 75% of 16 & 17 year olds voted). Are these facts driving the debate?
This week British government sources said: "No Brit under the age of 58 has had their say on the UK's membership of the European Union.... This is a big decision for our country, one that is about the future of the United Kingdom." This may seem like a call for more inclusion and a plea for involving youth, but on the contrary, the Conservatives continue to ignore the proposals to offer the choice to 16-17 year olds.
Youth will be affected most by the referendum, as the outcomes will define younger people's futures more profoundly and for longer. On top of that they already have responsibilities as citizens as they often work and pay taxes, yet are not given an opportunity to be part of a decision, which really is once in a lifetime! If David Cameron wishes to truly have a legitimate outcome, involving all young people in having a say on the future of their country will be a crucial test of his leadership. Expanding voting rights is always a decision for the bravest, but is also a signal of Cameron's trust in young people.
Currently, however, his government seems to be pussyfooting around this issue and not even explaining why rights should not be expanded. This leads me to believe that for Conservatives, the calculation is political. Recently, my home country of Estonia, decided to lower the voting age at local elections to 16 - a tricky political situation, as it needed approval from two Parliaments to change the constitution. No such excuses in the UK!
It is true that young people across Europe and also in the UK are generally more pro-Europe than older generations. In a survey conducted at the end of 2014 among 17 -22 year olds, some 62% of young people said they believed the UK's membership of the EU was a good thing, with only 14% disagreeing. Even among young Conservative-inclined voters, 57% thought EU membership to be positive.
If Mr. Cameron truly does want Britain to remain part of the EU, there's clearly no tactical advantage to be gained from excluding this age group from the referendum. But it's not just about seeing the UK stay in the EU; it is rather about the principle of empowering the broadest range of voters when taking decisions about their future. The debate should really be about rights of people, regardless of their voting intentions. In January, Cameron did say at PMs questions that "I'm very happy for us to have a vote" on extending the right to vote to 16. So why not have an open debate and a vote at Parliament - an opportunity for UK to be in the vanguard on this issue? If he does not allow the vote to 16 and 17 year olds, it reeks of cowardice and protection of his most outspoken backbenchers who seem to fear young people.
One part of the UK already decided that monumental decisions such as membership of a Union (in this case, Scotland's membership of the UK) could not be decided without reference to its 16 and 17 year old citizens. Surely Mr. Cameron, when planning this next referendum must want to look at the best practice that emerged from Scotland and allow 16 and 17 year olds their democratic right to decide on the future of their country and their Europe?