Retire to the EU? Young MEPs are few and far between - and that's not likely to change soon

Just three of the 705 current MEPs are under 30, with the European Parliament historically being seen as ‘a retirement place’.

By Maria Delaney

Noteworthy logo with a woman speaking into a microphone and EU flag in the background.

“IN THE EUROPEAN Parliament you retire.”

Dr Nikoleta Yordanova is associate professor of European politics at Leiden University in the Netherlands.  Her assessment is that while Brussels has been traditionally a destination for politicians at the end of their domestic career, there is potential for a newer generation to ascend.

“This has been slowly changing as the parliament has received more and more actual powers in decision making,” she said. 

“But for a long time this has stayed with some countries,” she added, saying some older politicians saw the European Parliament (EP) as “a retirement place”.

That attitude has likely contributed to the median age of 54 years for the outgoing MEPs, with people between 40 and 69 overrepresented.

That is according to a new investigation by Noteworthy and a team of journalists from across the EU, as part of the European Data Journalism Network (EDJNet).

Ireland has a higher median age of 58 and Fine Gael’s Maria Walsh (36) is the only current MEP that is under 50.  

With no MEPs under 25 and just three under 30, the youth population are vastly underrepresented at a European level.  That is despite 31% of the EU population being under 30, with 13% aged between 18 and 29.

That is not likely to change soon. In the upcoming election, Ireland’s Saoirse McHugh and Cian Prendiville are among the youngest running, both in their early 30s.

It is important for young people to see their age-group represented, said Fabiana Maraffa is the EU policy officer for the European Youth Forum.  This can “definitely boost that group’s participation in politics and in elections”.

This is because “it is easier to believe that those people similar to you can be actors of change”. She added: 

“The more political parties include youth relevant information and topics in their priorities or programmes, the more young people will be passively engaged in politics and vote.” 

Noteworthy, the crowdfunded community-led investigative platform from The Journal, supports independent and impactful public interest journalism.

Barriers to a younger parliament 

There are a number of barriers preventing young people in becoming MEPs, including many countries requiring MEPs to be older before they can run for election.

Though people in most member states can run when they turn 18, in Ireland and eight others you have to be at least 21. There are also three countries with higher minimum ages: Romania (23) as well as Italy and Greece (25). 

Belgium used to be like Ireland, but lowered the age to 18 in recent years.  

Given the profile needed to gain a political seat in Europe and how there are no MEPs under 25, despite many countries allowing this, this minimum age is likely not the main barrier. 

Dr Kevin Cunningham, lecturer in politics in TU Dublin and founder of independent polling company Ireland Thinks, said that the amount of time it takes to build a political career in Ireland is a significant obstacle. 

“We have a combination of infrequent elections” at a local and national level, he said. This “makes the churn of politicians much slower”.

He cited the examples of Simon Harris and Leo Varadkar who were involved in politics at a very young age and progressed through the political ranks at speed.

Though they were both appointed as Taoiseach in their late 30s, it still took them many years to build their career to that point. “It takes a long time,” he added.

When the comparison between age of MEPs and the general EU population was put to the European Parliament, a spokesperson said that these groups “cannot be compared in terms of age” and highlighted these minimum age requirements.

They also said that MEPs would have been five years younger at the date of the last election in 2019. 

Maria Walsh, wearing a pink dress, speaking to people at a conference. Fine Gael's Maria Walsh is currently Ireland's youngest MEP.
Source: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Why representation matters  

This is not just a problem at a European level. The European Youth Forum’s Maraffa highlighted the stark underrepresentation of young people across the world: 

“Just 2.6% of the world parliamentarians are of the same age-group, and less than 1% of the world parliamentarians are young and female.”

Yordanova said that MEPs that see the parliament as their training ground, rather than place of retirement, often use it to increase their profile. She said: 

“Thereby, you will make sure you are part of important debates. Your voice is heard.” 

Lack of representation can lead to “a disjoint between the public and politicians”, according to Cunningham of Ireland Thinks.

This was echoed by Maraffa who said that “trust in institutions” can rise if the parliament is more attentive to topics that the European youth want addressed. That includes climate change, digitisation and youth rights.  

Maraffa said that barriers to youth participation could be removed by prioritising youth-relevant topics as well as encouraging young people to vote. 

“For young people EU elections are not important, not because they lack of civic engagement or the will to change, but because of mistrust in the system.”  



Do MEPs reflect the diversity of the EU?

Closeup of EU flag

By Maria Delaney of Noteworthy 

Checking Privilege is a data-driven investigation into diversity in the European Parliament that was undertaken with the European Data Journalism Network.

Noteworthy is the crowdfunded investigative journalism platform from The Journal, and was the Irish partner for this cross-European project. 

It was done in collaboration with: Maximilian Henning, Gina La Mela and Simon Jockers of SWR (Germany), Lorenzo Ferrari of OBCT (Italy), Gianna-Carina Grün of DW (Germany), Álvaro Merino of El Orden Mundial (Spain) and Tomas Hrivnak of Denník N (Slovakia).

This article is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here

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