The Geography of Discontent

Credit: Kobu Agency


Given the fact that the European Commission in general avoids to interfere in, comment on, or to evaluate the electoral processes in the Member States, the Working Paper of Lewis Dijkstra, Hugo Poelman and Andres Rodriguez-Pose for the Directorate-General of Regional and Urban Policy can be called very exceptional. It is in fact an X-ray of the recent growth, like a cancer, of political forces that want no less than to kill the European project that has produced peace and prosperity for hundreds of millions of European citizens during the last 65 years.

The paper provides the first comprehensive overview of the anti-EU vote across the entire European Union (EU) with a detailed geographical breakdown. It maps the share of votes for parties that opposed EU integration in the last national election between 2013 and 2018 across more than 63000 electoral districts in the 28 EU Member States. The paper distinguishes between three different levels of EU opposition: strongly opposed, opposed, and somewhat opposed. The share of the anti-EU vote is then regressed on a series of factors that reflect the three dominant explanations of anti-system votes in Europe: the personal characteristics of people ‘left-behind’, disparities in age, education and income, and different types of long-term territorial decline.

The paper finds that over the last decade, the parties opposed to EU integration have almost doubled their votes. The general opinion of the EU has also deteriorated, revealing a growing number of people who distrust the Union. To understand this development, the paper focuses on the geography of EU discontent. For the first time, it maps the vote against EU integration in the last national elections across more than 63 000 electoral districts in each of the 28 EU Member States. It assesses whether a range of factors considered to have fostered the surge in populism have had an impact on anti-EU voting. Research into populism often relies on the individual characteristics of anti-system voters: older, working-class, male voters on low incomes and with few qualifications to cope with the challenges of a modern economy.

The results show that economic and industrial decline are driving the anti-EU vote. Areas with lower employment rates or with a less-educated workforce are also more likely to vote anti-EU. Once these factors have been taken into account, many of the purported causes of the geography of discontent either matter much less than expected or their impact varies depending on the strength of opposition to the European project.

The structure of the paper is as follows. The first section describes how public opinion of the EU has deteriorated over the past 15 years, how anti-EU votes have grown, and how this is linked to, although differs from, voting for populist parties. The following section analyses the vote for parties standing against EU integration, and is followed by an overview of the factors linked to anti-EU voting. Sections 4 and 5 look at the method and data and present the results of the analysis, respectively. The final sections discuss the results, give a recap on the reasons behind the geography of EU discontent, and offer some conclusions and policy implications

Lewis Dijkstra, Hugo Poelman and Andres Rodriguez-Pose (2018), The Geography of Discontent, Working Paper 12/2018, European Commission, Directorate-General Regional and Urban Policy, Brussels.