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Too young to vote: British teens join the Brexit debate

Tony Todd / FRANCE 24 I Sixth-formers at the Harington School are split between Remain and Leave

Britain’s 16- and 17-year-olds, unlike their counterparts in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, cannot vote on Thursday. FRANCE 24 met a class of teens whose rational approach to “Brexit” is a loss to the national debate.


On Tuesday night, Britons were glued to their televisions for the last big televised debate before Thursday’s referendum on whether the UK should leave or remain a member of the European Union.

It wasn’t much of a debate. The panel largely ignored questions from the audience, choosing instead to score points off each other and hammer home bland and repetitive campaign slogans on immigration, the economy and security. Vote Leave’s “take back control” mantra raised collective groans from the audience by the end of the debate.

If commentators said “Remain” won the debate, by a whisker, no one was much the wiser for it. Vote Leave’s call for an optimistic leap in the dark, and "Remain"’s threats of economic meltdown if the UK quits the EU, have been repeated ad nauseam. Few were converted, referendum fatigue is sinking in, and many can’t wait for the whole business to be over.

Strong opinions, too young to vote

At Harington Sixth Form College (for students aged 16 to 18), a state school in the largely Conservative county in the English East Midlands, FRANCE 24 spoke to students who demonstrated a maturity on the debate that was lacking on national television the night before.

Many of them – especially those who want to remain in the EU – are disappointed they cannot vote in a referendum that will have enormous implications on their future. Many of those who want to quit the EU were adamant that they were too immature and “overly influenced by parents and left-wing teachers” to be given the responsibility.  

It nearly wasn’t the case. In December 2015 the House of Lords, the UK’s upper house of parliament, passed a motion to lower the voting age to 16, a right granted to Scottish youngsters for their 2014 independence referendum.

The motion was rejected by the Conservative-led lower House of Commons, which said the move would "seriously undermine the legitimacy of the referendum" by appearing to favour one side over the other. Indeed, polls have consistently shown that the UK’s younger voters overwhelmingly support remaining part of the EU.

The Harington students, evenly split between “Leave” and “Remain”, are remarkably well informed about the EU and its institutions. Nearly all of them can name their local members of the European Parliament – adults who spoke to FRANCE 24 in nearby Leicester a day earlier could not do the same.

On neither side of the argument did anyone cite immigration – the central issue of the “Leave” campaign, which has veered dangerously towards outright xenophobia – as something that concerned them. They were much more concerned by questions of democracy, sovereignty and human rights.

‘Regulation is a good thing’

Speaking up for the “Remain” camp, Emmanuel Dobas rubbished Vote Leave’s claims that the UK had surrendered its sovereignty to Brussels.

“Most of the laws passed by the European Parliament relate to relatively minor things that most of us are really not concerned with,” he said, explaining that the vast majority of EU laws are regulations designed to allow harmonised trade across the bloc.

“The EU and the European Commission have around 50,000 civil servants,” he added. “There’s something like half a million here in the UK. I don’t see a democratic problem.”

His classmate Sophie Clark passionately defended some of the EU’s more imposing legislation, such as the 2003 Working Time Directive, which guarantees paid leave to all workers and which “particularly affects my family, many of whom are in part-time work”.

James Platt, also pro-"Remain", complained that the “Leave” campaign had focussed too much on emotive and divisive issues – particularly immigration – and had lied about the amount EU membership costs the British taxpayer. It had also exaggerated the impact of immigrants “swamping” public services such as the National Health Service (NHS).

“Membership doesn’t cost us that much, regulation is actually a good thing, and being in the EU gives us opportunities, such as freedom of movement.” he said. “If the NHS is at a breaking point it’s because of our ageing population, new diseases and underfunding. It has nothing to do with immigration.”

EU ‘cannot be described as a working democracy’

The “Leave” supporters in the class were more vocal and passionate, even if they were far more polite, measured and patient than the firebrands leading the cause at a national level. But again the arguments for leaving were based on sovereignty and economics; immigration hardly got a mention.

“Our rights won’t change if we vote to leave,” argued George Sayers. “But we are shackled to a failing eurozone, massive youth unemployment in southern Europe, and EU institutions focussed on giving big business what they want.”

Tom Parker added: “We joined the EEC (European Economic Community) when it was focussed on trade and security. It has evolved into something where people we do not elect pass laws that override our parliament and affect us.”

Twins Callum and Rhys Hill agreed. “Having laws passed by at the European Court of Justice that override our own parliament cannot be described as a working democracy,” said Callum.

His brother Rhys, as passionate as his brother that Britain must quit the EU, was adamant that despite the strength of his beliefs it would have been unwise to give him the vote.

“Most young people in Rutland vote Conservative simply because it’s what their parents do,” he said. “We are still in a school environment, many of our opinions are shaped by teachers who tend to be left-wing. My mum is voting 'Leave'. Maybe I have been influenced by that.”

His classmate Gabriella Inganells, who supports “Remain”, is disappointed that her voice will not be heard. “We are exactly the same as old people. We are well informed and we do plenty of research. My step-mother, who is voting, hasn’t done any at all.”

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