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Which issues unite and polarize EU parties and voters?

On 6-9 June European Parliament elections take place separately in all 27 member states, with national parties competing against each other. However, if we were to imagine that European Union was one single political space, which would be the most consensual and most divisive political issues among  parties and voters? The research team who developed the voting advice application EU&I at the Robert Schuman Centre, analysed the most consensual and polarizing issues among EU parties and the trends emerging from users’ answers in the test.

On abortion, defence and security, rule of law and cost of living

Contrary to the polarized landscape often portrayed in the media, the study reveals significant agreement on several key issues. Abortion rights see a striking 74% of EU parties opposing restrictions, an opinion echoed by more than 80% of EU&I users so far. This highlights a clear divergence from the contentious debates seen in other parts of the world, such as the US.

A broad consensus has also emerged over defence and security issues: more than 70% of the parties agree that EU should strengthen its security and defence policy and support increasing military spending. This position is mirrored by almost 80% of users who favor strengthening EU defence policy and 72% who support military aid to Ukraine. Strong support for Ukraine to join the EU underlines the collective response to external threats.

The principle of democratic governance also shows high agreement, with 85% of users and 68% of parties, who had an opinion on this question, supporting sanctions against member states that undermine the rule of law. This reflects a shared commitment to upholding democratic values within the EU.

Parties converge also on two economic issues that have been highly relevant in recent years: the problems faced by European farmers and the cost-of-living crisis, with 71% of parties in favour of protecting farmers from external competition as well as 70% approving state intervention to control rising costs of basic commodities. While user support is slightly lower, around 60%, these issues remain rather consensual.

On veto power, environment, soft drugs and immigration

Nevertheless, several issues strongly divide EU parties and voters. The most divisive issue is the veto power of individual member state: 48% of the parties that have an opinion on that issue are in favour of member states having less veto power, 50% are against it. While many European leaders have expressed their dismay over instances when one country blocks some crucial decisions at the EU, there is still very high disagreement over curtailing such power. Users are similarly split, with the highest share of ’No opinion’ responses as many struggle to take a stance on this issue.

On environmental policy, there is a slight majority of parties and users on the ’green side’ on issues such as promoting public transport through green taxes and supporting renewable energy, but a more specific policy  - the proposed ban on selling internal combustion engine cars by 2035 - reveals sharp divisions, showing that the discourse on climate action versus economic impact is highly polarized.

The legalisation of personal use of soft drugs sees a near-even divide, with 48% of parties in favor and 44% against. Users lean slightly more supportive at 53%, indicating a contentious debate on personal freedoms versus regulatory control.

As to be expected, immigration policy continues to polarize, with 50% of parties and 44% of users supporting stricter immigration controls, while 43% of parties and almost 40% of users oppose such measures. The mandatory relocation system for refugees also divides opinions, although user support is slightly higher.

The most important issues for users

EU&I users are given the opportunity to give priority which issues are more important to them that others and 35% have used this option. The graph below shows the most impostant issues for them.

This analysis covers 274 political parties and 6 (Irish) independent candidates across the 27 EU countries and the first 150,000 uesrs of EU&I. EU&I is designed to help citizens find the political party that best matches their preferences in the 2024 European Parliament elections. The tool was developed by a group of over 150 European researchers and is led by Lorenzo Cicchi and Andres Reiljan.

Disclaimer: The sample of users of the EU&I application is not a representative cross-cut of EU citizens and should not be interpreted as such.

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.