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The most polarising issues in the European Union party system

European Parliament (EP) election campaigns often concentrate on the most important national issues in each member state, rather than topics that are actually within the competence of the EP. But if we were to imagine the EU as one unified political space in which the EP functions as a national parliament, what would be the most polarising issues between the parties? In this brief analysis, Andres Reiljan, Max Weber Fellow and EU&I co-leader, tries to answer this exact question, using data from the previous - 2019 - edition of EU&I.  

EU&I gives a chance to conduct such a broad comparison, as it mapped the stances of the relevant parties from every EU member state on an identical set of political issues. Altogether, over 270 parties from (then) 28 member states were positioned on 22 political statements with which the parties and the users can either agree/disagree completely, tend to agree/disagree or take a neutral stance. The statements cover a wide rande of policy areas, such as taxation, welfare state, European integration, environmental protection, law and order, immigration and social values. 

Looking at the distribution of parties all across Europe, the first notable observation is that polarisation was higher on the issues that pertain to immigration, social values/liberalisation and openness to further European integration. Regarding the classic socioeconomic issues like taxation and social benefits, however, parties are less dispersed and do not take very strong positions. 

The single most polarising issue-statement between the parties was ’Asylum-seekers should be distributed proportionally among EU Member States through a mandatory relocation system’. More than 60 per cent of the parties take a strong stance on this issue, approximately half of them being completely against and the other half in complete agreement with this proposal. High polarisation on this issue is not surprising, as it touches two very controversial topics: immigration/refugees and transferring decision-making authority from the member states to the EU. Also, there is a strong regional aspect in this division, as 72 per cent of the parties in the Central Eastern European (CEE) region were against this proposal, whereas in Southern Europe (SE) - the region most exposed to refugees - a clear majority of parties supported such measure (81%). In Northwestern Europe (NWE), the bulk of parties (68%) were also in favour of mandatory refugee quotas, but polarisation is higher compared to SE, because the parties that are against such quotas are usually adamant in their opposition (‘completely against’). 

Polarisation on the asylum-seekers issue is the most vivid example of a more general trend: while most parties see European integration as a good thing (66% agreed with this statement and 24% were against), regarding more specific proposals to further EU integration we see notable polarisation. The statement about strengthening EU defence policy revealed, again, some regional considerations behind party positions. Among the CEE countries that are more vulnerable to the Russian threat, almost 3/4 of the parties supported stronger EU defence policy. Meanwhile, in NWE and SE, there was strong polarisation over whether the EU should be given more authority in this area. Defence policy is an issue where right-populists held the same position with far-left and even with some green parties, all of them being against further integration in this area. Polarisation was even higher regarding granting tax-raising powers to the EU. Here, the division is more ideological than geographical. In all regions, the socialists, greens and even many far-left parties support collecting taxes at the EU level, whereas right-wing parties are against it.

Another highly polarising bloc of issues in the pan-European political space relates to social values and liberalisation. As for the general dispersion of parties, the second most polarising statement was whether same-sex marriages should be allowed. Polarisation on that issue was, again, partly regional. As expected, post-socialist countries were more skeptical towards legalising same-sex marriages and this is reflected in party positions, as only 30 per cent of CEE parties supported such a proposal, while over 50 per cent were against it. In NWE, however, a consensus is forming over equal marriage rights and almost 80 per cent of the parties were in complete or partial agreement with allowing same-sex marriage. Statements about legalising soft drugs and euthanasia were also high on the polarisation scale. Again, parties from the post-socialist bloc were more conservative, whereas in the rest of Europe these issues divided parties almost evenly. However, compared to same-sex marriage and asylum-seekers, there were far fewer parties that exhibited strong agreement towards legalising soft drugs and euthanasia.

Analysing the positions of EU parties on an identical set of issues confirms that the EU is far from being a unified political space. Although ideological affiliations are not negligible in determining party stances, regional considerations dominate on many issues. Regarding further EU integration, parties tend to support it only in domains that are beneficial for their own country, while being skeptical about chipping in to help other regions. Also, there is a clear division between the more conservative post-socialist Europe and the rest of the EU.

Issues that relate to values, identities and national sovereignty invoke strong emotions and are not easy to compromise on. Thus, it will be interesting to see how these polarisation patterns have changed over the last five years, as Europe has faced a number of shocks and crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the full-scale war in Ukraine. Have the divisions between EU parties and regions decreased in the light of such developments or have the crises polarised the continent even more? EU&I 2024 will help us find out!

This text was originally published in The Euroflections, eds. Niklas Bolin, Kajsa Falasca, Marie Grusell & Lars Nord, 2019.

Andres Reiljan is a Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute and one of the two co-leaders of the EU&I project. His research has mostly focused on different aspects of political polarisation, voting advice applications and party placement methods.