All the countries examined share membership of the European Union

The Divided Continent

Understanding Europe’s social landscape in 2020 and beyond

By Sophia Gaston

As populism has become part of the furniture in Europe, focus has shifted away from examining the origins of these anti-establishment movements, and back towards fascination with the fortunes of the leaders themselves. Meanwhile, muted victories for traditional parties in a handful of elections, and the energy of a new parliament, are held up as proof that we have passed ‘peak populism’, and the system-level correction the old guard had been waiting for could yet still emerge.

Beneath the surface of Europe’s nascent political stabilisation, however, its social challenges remain profound. The Divided Continent, a new analysis of public opinion I have conducted for the European Policy Centre, across 13 major EU member states, shines light on the tensions and conflicts simmering beneath the surface, as Europe enters a crucial decade.

As ever, we must note that, despite their shared membership of the European Union, these nations each hold distinct historical, cultural and political stories and identities. Indeed, the diversity of findings simply emphasises the challenge of centralised policy-making for a continent grappling with a number of divergent, often contradictory, trends.

We can see that countries such as France, Germany and the Netherlands are struggling with their poorly managed transitions to post-industrial economies, and diverse, empowered societies. In Southern states such as Italy, Spain and Greece, the spectre of the financial crisis continues to loom large. And in the post-communist states in Eastern and Central Europe, fragile democracies are faltering and pulling away from the liberal European ambition.

One consistent and troubling theme amongst the vast majority of the member states is the disappointment citizens feel towards their nation’s trajectory – in economic opportunities, national standing, and community cohesion. Indeed, Estonia is the only member state we surveyed where a majority of citizens believe that quality of life has improved in their lifetime, with as many as 70% of the French and three-quarters of Greeks believing it has fallen. While those who suffered acutely in the financial crisis could be expected to long for a more prosperous period, nostalgia is deep-seated even amongst the more economically resilient member states – once again confirming the important social and cultural dimensions of this powerful political force.

We can also deduce that two of the most fiercely contested battlegrounds of the coming decade will be over the inter-generational contract, and the next phase of the feminist movement. While they manifest in strikingly different ways between member states, it is clear that many of the most contested issues – such as economic reform, immigration and identity – are fusing onto age and gender to a degree that renders them central to understanding today’s social and political polarisation. Women are, for example, considerably more likely to feel vulnerable to economic inequality, and to be concerned about the preservation of national traditions. In turn, those who hold sexist attitudes towards women are less likely to support democratic principles, and to harbour nostalgic sentiments.

Between the generations, we can also see profoundly different attitudes towards democracy, immigration, patriotism and cultural traditions. In Western Europe, the young are distinctly more liberal in their opinions on cultural diversity. In Central and Eastern Europe, however, it is the older generations who defend democracy and cosmopolitan values. The tensions between the generations are reaching a fever pitch not seen since the 1960s, and diffusing them will compel governments to entirely rethink the social and economic settlement.

There has been much discussion about the future of liberal democracy, and the new cadre of EU leaders consider themselves to be on the frontline of its defence. After a rocky decade for Europe’s traditional political parties, just 37% of Europeans we surveyed consistently supported democratic principles, and half of the electorate is disengaged from political participation. Nonetheless, majorities in most member states declare they would be more likely to support political candidates who stand up for human rights, who seek alternative points of view and seek compromises. The inconsistency with their actual voting behaviour, however, suggests that the wider environment in which many elections are taking place is presenting voters with threats and insecurities that exceed their instincts towards liberal, consensus-building politicians.

The EU’s fresh leadership is keen to drive forward an ambitious agenda; however they will be unlikely to succeed without a deep understanding of the delicate social ecosystem. Whether along the lines of age and gender, or the schisms between those who hope for a more cosmopolitan or communitarian future, the divisions that have formed within and between member states are difficult to ignore. Let us not also forget the glaring absence of the United Kingdom from this survey, as it begins its new life outside the European Union. Small movements towards stabilisation may afford the air of recovery, but they should not obscure the challenging road to reform still to be taken, if the continent is to thrive in the years to come.

The full working paper can be downloaded free via the European Policy Centre’s website.

Sophia Gaston

Sophia is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.