Millennials create own political parties as 373 million Europeans prepare to vote

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By Rachel Elbaum, Bálint Bárdi and Kai Steinecke

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Daniel Berg looks and sounds like he could have stepped out of an election poster in his hometown of Brooklyn, New York.

Instead, he’s on the campaign trail trying to win a seat in the European Parliament — aiming to give millennials a voice.

Polls suggest far-right and anti-European Union parties might win more support than ever before in the elections, which are due to be held between May 23 – 26. Anti-establishment parties appear to be on course to attain up to a third of the seats in the E.U.’s lawmaking body, according to some predictions.

Berg is running for Momentum, a Hungarian party established to address the challenges facing young people in particular, including employment and the high price of housing. It’s also challenging the anti-E.U., anti-immigrant and pro-Russian rhetoric of Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban and his Fidesz Party.

Daniel Berg is originally from Brooklyn, but is running for office in Hungary.Balint Bardi / NBC News

“If we are going to find a solution to the populist wave propping up all over the world, there is no better place to do that than Hungary, where it started,” said Berg, 30, whose mother moved to the United States from the country to escape communism.

“We want to show people that they can be proud to be Hungarian, but also pro-E.U.,” Berg added. “They can exist side by side and strengthen each other. It shouldn’t be an either-or proposition.”

Berg came to Hungary in 2017 to study public policy at the George Soros-backed Central European University, which Orban’s government recently forced out of Budapest. The school relocated to Vienna.

In Momentum’s first election for the Hungarian Parliament in April 2018, the party received 3 percent of the vote, falling short of the 5 percent required to be awarded any seats.

But Berg and his Momentum colleagues are hoping their political fortunes will change next week.

With its 751 lawmakers, the European Parliament is one of the E.U.’s centers of power, making laws that impact the daily lives of around 508 million people in 28 countries. That’s more people than in the U.S., Canada and Mexico combined.

March 14, 201901:51

Around 373 million people across the bloc vote for candidates from domestic parties to represent them in the Parliament. These party candidates then form alliances with those from other member states based on their ideologies and sit together in parliament as political groups.

Like Momentum, Volt Europe is a new, youth-focused and pro-European party aiming to counter the far-right.

“Do we as young people want to pay for a couple of old dudes that are doing quite stupid stuff in the Parliament? I don’t think so,” Volt founder Paul von Loeper, 29, said, referring to anti-European and far-right politicians.

Volt’s strongholds are in Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Bulgaria, though it has a presence in 13 countries in Europe. Party leaders hope to get at least 25 lawmakers elected from seven different countries.

Volt founder Paul von Loeper.Kai Steinecke / NBC News

“The parties who are there now don’t have the right answers to climate change, migration, social inequality,” Cornelius Rahn, 36, the head of media relations at Volt, said. “These are all problems that can’t be solved by an individual nation.”

Even if Volt doesn’t get any lawmakers elected in this election, it’s not giving up. It plans to have candidates from the party stand in local elections in areas across Europe in the coming months and years.

“The election is just a first step. We think in terms of the next 20, 30 years,” Rahn added.

If the past is anything to go by, Momentum and other new parties aiming to win seats have an uphill battle trying to convince young Europeans to vote.

In the last election in 2014, only 28 percent of people ages 18 to 24 cast a ballot, compared to some 51 percent of those older than 55. Turnout across the E.U. was less than 43 percent.

The makeup of Parliament also skews toward middle age. The average age of lawmakers was 54 in March 2017.

The chaos surrounding Brexit, the United Kingdom’s quest to leave the E.U., has increased positive feelings about the bloc across Europe, according to polls.

However, there are also signs that far-right nationalist parties with anti-E.U. agendas could increase their standing in the Parliament.

“Those parties which are more radical in their message, including pro-European parties, will probably attract more voters,” said Agata Gostyńska-Jakubowska, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, a think tank in Brussels. “The result will be that the next European Parliament will be more fragmented. It will be harder to garner a majority to push through legislation.”

New parties aren’t the only ones trying to encourage young people to head to the polls. The European Movement International, a lobbying group that promotes European integration, hosted a pan-European Democracy festival, modeled on a music festival, where influencers, unions, politicians and activists came together to engage young people last month.

Von Loeper and Berg are both convinced that the messages of positivity and cooperation among countries being pushed by Volt and Momentum will win over voters looking for a change from the status quo.

Young Hungarians “want to be safe, they want to have a family, they want to have a well-paying job, they want to be able to take a vacation sometimes,” Berg said. “We need to be able to give them the tools to do that.”

Bálint Bárdi reported from Budapest, Kai Steinecke from Berlin, and Rachel Elbaum from London.

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