Page last updated at 08:57 GMT, Saturday, 6 June 2009 09:57 UK

Age no barrier in European elections

By Nikki Jecks
BBC World Service

Astrid Lulling

In this week's European Parliament elections, two candidates are hoping not just to bridge the generational divide but also to banish the voter apathy that has overshadowed past polls.

At just 18, Ellen Soderberg from Sweden is hoping to become Europe's youngest MEP.

Also campaigning is Astrid Lulling - once holder of the same title - who may now become the parliament's oldest member.

Ms Lulling first entered the European Parliament in 1965.

At that time there were just six member states: Italy, France, West Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and her own country, Luxembourg.

"In 1965, we were occupied about how the then six member states could agree. So, I really, at that time, didn't think of the unification of the whole continent," she says.

There was also the Cold War to contend with.

Early days

Today, there are nearly 27 member countries, and a new cooling has developed in relations between Eastern and Western Europe.

But the other thing that has changed in the intervening 25 years is, that if re-elected on Sunday, Ms Lulling will become the oldest MEP - she turns 80 four days after election day.

In the parliament you need experienced people, you need a memory - I'm the memory of the parliament
Astrid Lulling

When she first joined the parliament, it was a non-elected body and she was one of only two women among 142 members.

"We had no real powers, you know, but we gave an 'opinion'. However, I must say that lack of power does not necessarily mean lack of influence," she says.

Despite the lack of precedent for women in parliament, she insists her male colleagues made her feel welcome, nicknaming her "Miss European Parliament".

Now, she says, her age has become a handicap not a selling-point in the eyes of some voters.

Nevertheless, Ms Lulling believes she still has much to offer, having served as an MEP from 1965 to 1974, and from 1989 onwards for the Christian Social People's Party.

"In the parliament you need experienced people, you need a memory - I'm the memory of the parliament," she says.

New generation

Ms Soderberg turned 18 on 4 June, making her only just eligible to run as as a candidate for the Swedish Pirate Party.

She says she has always wanted to be a politician, and eagerly embraced the opportunity to run for the Pirate Party.

Ellen Soderberg
Ellen Soderberg hopes to inspire a new generation of voters

"When I got this opportunity I felt really scared at first, but I figured that someone needs to be a young voice in the European Parliament and I thought I could be that," she explains.

Ms Soderberg says some of her school friends think she is crazy for wanting to enter politics.

But she believes she will make a good politician.

"I've always liked discussing things, helping people and making good decisions," she laughs shyly. "I think I can do a better job than anybody else."

Both women share the same conviction, if not the same politics, that the European Parliament provides a necessary opportunity for Europeans to engage with a continent now increasingly unified politically and economically.

Despite the growing importance of the European Parliament, Ms Lulling senses a lack of enthusiasm for political engagement amongst voters.

"You know in my country, the vote is mandatory. That means the right to vote becomes an obligation to participate, and I like the system," she says.

"When I consider the struggles that we fought - especially women for universal suffrage in the 19th and 20th Centuries - I think its amazing these days that people boycott [the elections]."

Many are very positive, and they don't even care about my politics because they are so excited I'm so young
Ellen Soderberg

She believes many people are ignorant of how much legislative power the parliament has.

"European legislation concerns all aspects of your private and professional life," she explains.

"And I don't understand why people don't take advantage of their right to know who is taking the decision in their name," she adds.

Ms Soderberg says the goal for her is to encourage a more open political process.

"I am for a more transparent European Parliament," she says.

She also believes strongly in her party's promise to provide free access to the internet by reforming copyright law and the patent system.

The 18-year-old believes her chances of actually getting elected are slim, but hopes that her youth may at least inspire people to re-engage with European politics.

"Mostly, the old people think its great that someone new, young wants to go to the European Parliament," she says.

"So many are very positive, and they don't even care about my politics because they are so excited that I'm so young."

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MEP Seats

  Votes MEPs
Party % +/- % Total +/-
EPP 33.4 -1.4 264 -18
Socialists 23.2 -4.1 183 -26
Liberal 11.0 +1.6 84 +5
Green 7.4 +1.3 50 +9
Left 5.3 -0.6 34 -2
UEN 3.4 +1.6 28 +2
Ind/Dem 2.7 -1.8 21 -15
No Group 13.6 +3.4 72 +3.4
0 of 27 countries declared.

UK Total MEP Seats

Party Votes MEPs
% +/- % Total +/-
CON 27.7 1.0 *26 1
UKIP 16.5 0.3 13 1
LAB 15.7 -6.9 13 -5
LD 13.7 -1.2 11 1
GRN 8.6 2.4 2 0
BNP 6.2 1.3 2 2
SNP 2.1 0.7 2 0
PC 0.8 -0.1 1 0
OTH 8.5 2.4 0 0
SF 1 0
DUP 1 0
72 of 72 seats declared. Vote share figures exclude Northern Ireland as it has a separate electoral system to the rest of the UK
* Includes UCUNF MEP elected in Northern Ireland
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