The traditional left-right divide which shaped political competition across Europe in the post-war period is increasingly being supplanted by new patterns of competition. Drawing on the experience of the 2019 European Parliament elections, Anja Durovic, Caterina Froio, Gilles Ivaldi, Sarah de Lange, Nonna Mayer and Jan Rovny explain that one of the more interesting developments is the way that old divides have taken on new meaning in European politics. Urban-rural, education and gender divisions are now key elements in the split between urban cosmopolitanism, represented by Green or Liberal parties, and more peripherally concentrated nativist traditionalism, represented by the radical right.

After the 2019 European Parliament elections, many observers breathed a sigh of relief. Turnout increased, radical right populist parties did not take over the Union, and Green parties did relatively well. Does this mean that the future of the EU is bright? We argue that behind this optimistic account lay new and old political cleavages that keep polarising Europeans and fragmenting EU party systems. We discussed this topic at a roundtable organised by the Center for European Studies and Comparative Politics at Sciences Po, Paris.

Optimistic accounts of the 2019 European parliamentary elections emphasise three main outcomes. First, against expectations, voter turnout increased in all EU countries, notably in Spain and Poland: 50.6% of Europeans went to the ballots against 42.6% in 2014, the highest turnout since the first direct election of the European parliament in 1979. Second, radical right populist parties were contained. Third, on the wave of the Fridays for Future campaign, Green parties performed well.

Figure 1: Map of radical right vote share in the 2019 European Parliament elections

Note: Compiled by the authors.

A more detailed look at these patterns, however, suggests that these developments are country specific. As the first map above shows, the radical right did not win big, but it stabilised its presence, doing particularly well in some countries, notably Belgium, Hungary and Italy, and losing in others, notably in the Netherlands. Matteo Salvini’s Lega is today the most successful radical right political party with a 20% increase in votes, followed by the Front National (now National Rally) and the Hungarian Fidesz.

Figure 2: Map of Green vote share in the 2019 European Parliament elections

Note: Compiled by the authors.

The Greens did well in a few countries, notably France and Germany, while they remain irrelevant in others, especially in Southern and Eastern Europe (see Figure 2). Consequently, while these patterns might induce some optimism about the future of the EU, they in fact underline the forging of old and new political divides that polarise Europeans. And these divides split electorates within countries as much as across them.

The new power of old divides

A major old divide that seems to be regaining importance is the urban-rural cleavage. This is best exemplified by voters of radical right parties that tend to concentrate in rural areas. The urban-rural divide in fact seems to combine a number of social and economic conditions, essentially class and education, while also reflecting residential choices and the socio-economic relegation of lower-class voters.

As a result, the spatial divide is also a political one echoing unequal economic opportunity: voters of the radical right feel marginalised from the globalised economy, and alienated from urban multiculturalism. In France, RN voters are predominantly found in peripheries which have lower shares of immigrants. There is a ‘halo effect’, whereby individual support for the RN tends to be weaker in highly ethnically diverse urban and suburban areas, and stronger in the immediately neighbouring locations, decreasing again as the distance to the immigration centre grows.

The divide between the radical right and the Greens also maps onto gender. In Germany, where the Greens got their highest electoral score, we see a six percentage point gap and in France an eight percentage point gap between the share of votes of men and women, with the latter being more likely to vote for the Greens.

Education, a historical divide among citizens, is becoming an increasingly powerful determinant of political behaviour. It seems to sort individuals into cultural milieus that determine the salience of and response to new political issues. It is the more educated that tend to be more concerned with environmental matters and that tend to view migration from a humanitarian perspective. Although levels of education keep increasing in all EU countries (see Eurostat), radical right parties still mobilise voters who on average have lower education than the voters of other political parties. While there is no archetypical profile of a radical right voter, the socio-economic background of these voters remains stable: the unskilled, those with low incomes, the working class. Among electorates opposed to the EU, it is education that is the primary determinant of whether a Eurosceptic will vote for the radical right or the radical left.

At first sight, these developments could be read as a story of the progressive young versus the conservative old, but it seems that in some countries, especially in France, the youngest birth cohort seems strongly polarised by these issues. In France, the Greens came first among younger voters (18-34 year olds), yet the second party for this group is the Rassemblement National. What we seem to be witnessing is thus the formation of a division between an urban, educated, more female, cosmopolitan, and ecologically minded political current, opposed to a rural, less skilled, more male, nativist and traditionalist one.

Divides and EU governance

The initial manifestation of this division is the increased fragmentation of the European Parliament. The traditional mainstream, represented primarily by the Socialists and the European Peoples’ Party, has lost its majority to the benefit of the Greens, the Liberals, and the radical right. The very narrow majority of parliamentary votes received by the Commission President designate, Ursula von der Leyen, underlines the weakness of traditional elites when it comes to garnering support in the new European Parliament and the possible end of the Spitzenkandidat process.

The dominant opponent to the European establishment is the radical right, which, despite its modest gains in 2019, is the most vocal challenger. Its ability to influence European affairs will, however, be very limited. Radical right parties remain divided over at least two, possibly three, party groups. They do not use whipping to control the behaviour of their members in parliament, and disagree over a range of issues (e.g. ethical issues, socio-economic issues, Russia). Moreover, they appear to use the European Parliament more as a platform for electoral politics than for active policy-making.

The cosmopolitan opposition to the radical right is much less clearly formulated. While in some countries, this side of the political divide is taken up by Liberal parties, in others, it is the Greens. The 2019-2024 European Parliament is likely to witness and contribute to the crystallisation of a clearer political expression of this political position.

The not so silent revolution?

Historically documented centre-periphery, education, and gender divisions, which started updating political values in what Ronald Inglehart called the Silent Revolution in the 1970s, are acquiring novel contours in the contemporary political context, potentially forming what Hooghe and Marks call the ‘transnational cleavage’. The 2019 European Parliament elections seem to underline the gradual shift from traditional politics between mainstream left and right parties that defined the post-war period to the politics of urban cosmopolitanism, represented by Green or Liberal parties opposed by more peripherally concentrated nativist traditionalism carried by the radical right.

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Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.

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About the authors

Anja Durovic – Sciences Po, Paris
Anja Durovic is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Sciences Po (CEE/LIEPP).

Caterina Froio – Sciences Po, Paris
Caterina Froio is Assistant Professor in Political Science/e-politics at Sciences Po, Centre for European Studies and Comparative Politics (CEE).

Gilles Ivaldi – University of Nice Sophia Antipolis
Gilles Ivaldi is a Researcher in political science with the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France, currently at URMIS-University of Nice.

Sarah de Lange – University of Amsterdam
Sarah de Lange is Professor by special appointment at the Department of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam.

Nonna Mayer – Sciences Po, Paris
Nonna Mayer is a CNRS Research Director Emerita at the Centre for European Studies and Comparative Politics of Sciences Po.

Jan Rovny – Sciences Po, Paris
Jan Rovny is an Associate Professor at Sciences Po (CEE/LIEPP).

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