Between Thursday and Sunday of this week, 400 million Europeans are eligible to cast their ballots in European Parliament elections. Five years have passed since the last European elections and a lot has happened in the interim, including the Brexit referendum, the refugee crisis and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. To obtain as accurate a picture as possible of the current mood and political trends in Europe, we have analyzed the results of the most recent elections across Europe, from the national level right down to municipal votes.
The colors on the map reflect the party group that received the most votes in each region. We have analyzed data from all 28 EU member states, with the results subdivided into 81,056 localities, mostly municipalities.
What immediately becomes clear: Europe is a colorful place. From leftist-socialist to far right-nationalist, the Continent is home to an extremely broad political spectrum – and every political creed is in the majority somewhere.
The map also reveals how strong each party group is in Europe. Click on a party category in the top bar and the Continent will take on a yellow, red, green or dark blue hue, with the darkness or lightness of the color reflecting the representation for that region of the parties in a specific group. We chose the colors in accordance with the colors used in the German party landscape. Other countries sometimes use different colors or appellations.
To determine what group a party belonged to, we relied heavily on the classifications of the Chapel Hill Expert Survey. The international association of experts regularly examines the positions held by all relevant political parties in Europe and categorizes them on the basis of their findings. These categories, of course, are not always sharply defined (more on this in the section on methods). But they are quite helpful in depicting how political power is divvied up in Europe.
At first glance, Europe may look like a colorful patchwork, but there are patterns and concentrations. The dark blue of conservatism dominates the center, while there are still a few social democratic or socialist strongholds left in Europe’s north and west. Recently, leftist fringe parties have found success in southern Europe.
The traditional rivalry between red (social democrats) and dark blue (conservatives) has more recently been supplanted by other conflicts. New colors are gaining ground across Europe. The light blue of the right-wing populists can now be seen in wide swaths of the continent, though it is strongest in Poland. But the political landscapes of France, Italy, Germany and Scandinavia have also been colored populist blue.
But right-wing populists are not the same everywhere. Their positions on the European Union, Russia or financial transfers within the EU are sometimes fundamentally different. As a result, there are likely to be at least two right-wing populist factions in the European Parliament after the elections. Furthermore, there are parties that share the core beliefs of the right wing but which, due to tradition or other circumstances, tend to be grouped (if only narrowly) with the conservatives. The Fidesz Party in Hungary is one such example.
This shows that a party’s orientation is far from static. It can change over time. The Italian party Lega Nord, for example, was seen just a couple of years ago as more of a regional separatist party. Now, though, it is a vanguard of the right-wing populist movement in Europe.
The Alternative for Germany (AfD) also belongs in this camp. It is particularly strong in Eastern Germany and in some areas, it receives more support than any other.
Several countries exhibit clear internal dividing lines when it comes to voting patterns, divisions that are often rooted in history or structural factors. Italy is a particularly striking example, a country where the prosperous north generally votes differently than the poorer south. It is this division that gave rise to the Lega Nord. Even though the right-wing populist party now receives votes in southern Italy as well (the result of its transformation from a regional to a national right-wing party, a metamorphosis reflected in its new name: Lega), the division in the country can still clearly be seen.
The Iberian Peninsula likewise displays such a division. Both in Spain and in Portugal, southerners tend to be further to the left on the party spectrum than their compatriots in the north. In both countries, the hotter south is less densely populated and more defined by large property owners and, correspondingly, poor farmworkers. These workers have traditionally been more likely to support leftist parties than has been the case in the more densely populated regions farther to the north.
In Sweden, the opposite is true: The sparsely populated north tends to produce stronger election results for the social democrats. The stark division in Belgium is also notable, being the product of the conflict between the Flemish and the Walloons. This is reflected in the country’s political party system.
Regional separatist parties play an important role in some countries. In Spain, the Catalonian conflict has most recently received the most attention, but there are also a lot of people in the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, Southern Europe and Eastern Europe who no longer feel at home in their own country. In many cases, such separatist parties are opposed to the European Union. Others, though (like the Catalonians), are hoping for support from Brussels in their efforts to gain autonomy.
Relative to the rest of Europe, the Greens are particularly deeply rooted in Western Germany. But they have also begun to attract significant support in other countries as well. The Greens were even part of the government in Latvia, even if they are much more conservative and rurally focused than environmental parties elsewhere in Central Europe.
In other countries in Southern or Eastern Europe, by contrast, the Greens still don’t play much of a role in the party landscape and are not represented in parliament. That doesn’t mean, however, that their positions don’t find some support. In the Czech Republic, for example, the Pirates are quite strong, a party whose focus on grassroots democracy is quite reminiscent of the Greens. There is also quite a bit of overlap between the Spanish party Podemos (which is categorized here as being leftist) and the Greens.
The yellow of the liberals is quite strongly represented in several countries at the center of Europe, particularly in France, where President Emmanuel Macron’s party La République En Marche! rose to power in 2017. The liberals are also traditionally strong in the Benelux countries and in Denmark and Finland.
A few liberal strongholds can also be identified in Eastern Europe. Indeed, liberal parties recently emerged victorious in both Estonia and in the Czech Republic.
In this party group too, though, individual members are often quite different from each other. Political scientists, for example, see similarities between the Czech party ANO 2011, classified here as a liberal party, and the Italian Five Star Movement, which is here classified as indefinable, with some experts seeing it as a left-wing populist party and others as right-wing populist. The German liberal party FDP and the Dutch liberals from the VVD, meanwhile, want nothing to do with the Five Star Movement
In general, it can be said that it is particularly difficult to classify parties that have only recently been founded – like the Five Star Movement and ANO 2011. Another such group is the Liste Pilz in Austria. Such parties often develop as protest movements against the entrenched system and as a result, they tend not to reflect the traditional lines of conflict that produced the political parties of the 20th century.
It remains to be seen in which direction such parties might develop in the future. And it is very possible that they will have to be reclassified when the next European elections roll around in 2024. Or that we will need different colors and more categories.