Culture Elections & Institutions In Print 

Redrawing Europe’s Map

From the Winter 2014/2015 Issue “Europe Under Fire

By Josse de Voogd

NIJMEGEN, Netherlands—Autumn falls in the leafy eastern neighborhoods of the Dutch city of Nijmegen. The vines winding up the sides of the late 19th century brick homes are turning yellow and brown. Inside, large book shelves line the walls. Stickers saying “No” to advertising mail adorn letter boxes, but quality newspapers are welcome. People go to their work at the university or in nonprofit organizations. Children with names like Fleur and Sanne are brought to school in cargo bikes. When they grow older, they will study a semester in a foreign country. Freelance hipsters are working on their notebooks in coffee bars. Nearby is a refugee center. A raft of volunteers, many jobless but with college degrees, are willing to help visitors find their way around town.

“Foreigners can enrich a society” is often heard. Locals even go as far as to apologize for the whiteness of their area. Fortunately the neighborhood has several Turkish bakeries. At times, there’s disdain for Dutch folk culture, while traditions from elsewhere are embraced as exotic. Though there are few countries where progressive values are more embraced than in the Netherlands, nationalism is with equal frequency a non-starter here. Neighbors embrace art markets, car-free Sundays, and multicultural festivals. As the electoral map shows, eastern Nijmegen is one of the most important strongholds for GroenLinks, the Dutch Green Left party and D66, the progressive liberal party.

A few miles to the west, vines have given way to paved gardens. Row houses built in the 1980s are covered with shutters on windows that reveal pairs of shiny vases standing symmetrically. Large dogs are walked on spacious but monotonous green lawns. Cars are pimped out with spoilers. A pink colored plaque next to front the door reveals that the children’s names are Kevin and Shirley. Income levels are not that much lower than in the eastern part of town, but education levels are. Dad works in construction and faces competition from cheaper East European workers, while mom is a housekeeper for the elderly, a sector also under constant strain. When they go to a restaurant or on a holiday trip, they prefer a simple package tour, and they watch commercial entertainment shows. Social cohesion in the neighborhood is not as strong as a few decades ago. But if the Dutch soccer team plays, people color their streets with orange flags. Folks can argue about parking tariffs and speed bumps, while taking their cars to the shopping mall—where they often find groups of young Moroccans lounging aimlessly.

The Netherlands’ multicultural society is also visible at the soccer club. The teams are growing more ethnically diverse, but few immigrant parents are willing to volunteer to keep the club running. Many complaints about “foreigners” are becoming more vocal, preceded by an “I am not a racist, but…” Immigrants are believed to profit disproportionately from the welfare state, seem overwhelmingly present in crime statistics, and urgently need to adapt to Dutch cultural norms. “The Netherlands should be The Netherlands again” is another increasingly frequent refrain. People are angry about European integration and don’t want to “cut our pensions to help out those lazy Greeks.” Strong politicians who talk straight and “say what we think” are becoming increasingly popular. Voters feel betrayed by a cosmopolitan elite that is weak on crime and immigration, pro-European, and “wants to help the whole world while our own poor and elderly are left to their own devices.” The populist, right-wing Party for Freedom (PVV), and to a lesser extent, its leftist populist competitor, the Socialist Party (SP), are topping the polls in this neighborhood.

A few decades ago, the differences between these two halves of town were narrower, with the traditional parties, the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, both doing well. But today it’s increasingly clear that voters in both neighborhoods hold a very different view of the world, of society and politics. As a result of globalization, migration, the rise in crime, and the growing importance of education and lifestyle, different groups in society have grown markedly apart.


The social and electoral map of Nijmegen has changed, and so has the map of the Netherlands and Europe. A similar set of observations could be made in many cities across the continent. New patterns of voting behavior have emerged, reflecting new polarities in changing societies. These polarities are set in the context of centuries-old rivalries that still persist. One of the most striking recent developments is the rise of Euroskeptic right-wing populist parties. The June 2014 elections for the European Parliament turned them into major parties in several countries, particularly the United Kingdom, Denmark, and France. Left-wing populists got their share as well, especially in southern Europe.

With these new political movements taking center stage, electoral maps are being redrawn. A new right-wing populism is emerging from a remarkable combination of anti-government sentiment and nostalgia for a time when government cared more about its citizens. And it thrives both in traditionally rightist areas populated with small entrepreneurs and in the remote fringes of the cities, as well as declining industrial regions and working class neighborhoods that had long been bastions of the left. The rise of populism and its geographic translation also reflect how left and right are becoming increasingly blurred, with both populist streams often deriving their support from the same areas.

In addition to this widespread Euroskeptic and populist trend, numerous regionalist movements seem to have gained momentum. Scotland organized its referendum on whether to seek independence from Britain. Catalonia is anxious to do so as well, despite the failure of the independence vote in Scotland. Meanwhile, an outright civil war has broken out in eastern Ukraine.

While the field of electoral geography has confined itself primarily to the national level, it is precisely the international comparisons that are so intriguing. Indeed, merging all of Europe’s electoral maps creates the opportunity to see just how the potency of intra-European sentiments are that effectively transcend what remains of the continent’s national borders. An electoral map of Europe has begun to emerge, showing quite an intricate patchwork of subcultures, class antagonisms, lifestyles, and ancient sentiments.


One of the main factors shaping Europe’s electoral geography is the division between cities and the countryside. In the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, and Austria, urban regions are clearly recognizable on the map as left-wing isles in right-wing surroundings. These cities are traditionally populated by industrial workers, intellectuals, and immigrants, while socialized housing often occupies a significant part of the urban landscape. At the same time, broad swaths of the middle class have left for a house with a garden in the suburbs or in the countryside, creating a rightist commuter-belt around these cities. Where social democrats and socialists dominate the more industrialized areas, cities with a highly educated population also show a strong preference for progressive parties like social-liberals and greens, so called “post-materialist” parties that place an emphasis on individualism, cosmopolitanism, and multiculturalism. It is remarkable how support for these kinds of parties is concentrated in comparable areas across the continent—gentrified neighborhoods built in the 19th century just outside the city center. These areas, among them Nørrebro in Copenhagen, De Pijp in Amsterdam, Prenzlauerberg in Berlin, and Neubau in Vienna, are dominated by hipster cafés, organic supermarkets, galleries, and yoga studios.

Urban-rural patterns are somewhat different in Europe’s periphery. In the Nordic countries, industries are primarily based in small rural towns, while the broad countryside is far out of reach for affluent commuters. These rural zones are traditionally  strongholds of the left and centrist Scandinavian agrarian parties. Most urban regions vote from right to the center, although post-materialist leftist parties have begun to win some substantial support as well, especially on Stockholm’s Södermalm Island, stronghold of greens and feminists.

In southern Europe, urban-rural distinctions are not as clearly marked. An exception is southern Spain, where cities are, at least relatively, rightist strongholds in quite leftist agricultural provinces. Mediterranean cities display a different structure from their northern European counterparts, with the rich traditionally living in expensive apartments in and around the city center. Neither the home nor garden, but the paseo, the collective evening walk, is the central point of reference. The working classes live at the periphery, in cheap flats or low-rise areas that sometimes have started as squats, creating “red belts” around cities. As with many cultural cases, France stays somewhere in between the northwestern European and Mediterranean pattern. Until recently, central Paris was a rightist stronghold, surrounded by a communist high-rise banlieu, until even there the leftist yuppies advanced.


While voting patterns in urban regions are mainly consequences of segmentation in terms of social status and lifestyle preferences, more factors are at play at the regional level. Old traditions, loyalties, religious affinities, and rivalries continue to prevail, overruling local class distinctions. Across the Netherlands, ignoring the physical landscape, income level, or degree of urbanization, runs the Bible Belt. This area follows relentlessly a 500-year-old border with a territory formerly occupied by Catholic Spain and now dominated by the most orthodox Calvinists. Spain’s electoral geography still strongly resembles the positions during the civil war in the 1930s. The south, the Asturian mining region, Basque country, and Catalonia remain leftist or separatist, while northwestern Galicia and Castile-León are still on the conservative right. Madrid and the Mediterranean coast switched to the right more recently. This is where most of the economic and housing boom took place, until the bubble collapsed a few years ago.

Patterns in Portugal are consistent with neighboring Spain, the north being characterized by conservative and religious small farmers and the south by large estates, strong unions, and leftist sentiments. As socialist as southern Iberia has become, southern Italy, consisting of the former Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily, has turned conservative. Religion and the mafia are somewhat omnipresent in this heartland of supporters of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. This controversial rightist leader was also backed in the far richer north, leaving the central regions like Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany to the left, a division that goes back centuries.

The East European countries show the most volatile party landscapes, a product of young democracies that suddenly and with no preparation succeeded rule for decades by the communist leaders of the Soviet Union. Identities are more complex, as boundaries were drawn quite arbitrarily during the last century. Countries like Poland and Romania are electorally split along former international borders. So the eastern “old” Poland is deeply conservative on social issues and statist on economic ones, while the reverse is true in the western part, which was removed from Germany after World War II.

Further east is Ukraine. The areas that were once part of Poland-Lithuania massively support the pro-Western parties, while the East and South vote strongly pro-Russian. In Germany, more than two decades after unification of communist East with capitalist West, electoral differences between the two sectors seem stronger than ever, with a clear preference for Die Linke (The Left) in the East. This party grew out of the former communist regime and thrives on nostalgic sentiments toward the communist past. These striking electoral gaps show the importance of phantom borders—frontiers that officially do not exist anymore except in the minds of the voters, and yet are ubiquitous in today’s political culture.

As various countries have been pulled apart and merged, and many populations have been displaced, any number of minorities have found themselves on the wrong side of today’s borders. Hungary is just a small remnant of a great past, and Hungarians who’ve found themselves mired in neighboring countries like Slovakia, Romania, Serbia, and Ukraine massively back their own political parties. After the bloody Balkan Wars, the former Yugoslavia disintegrated into six different states, but even these are far from mono-cultural. The three main ethnic groups in Bosnia are voting by and large for their own ethnic parties, a pattern that was even reinforced at the very recent October elections. Ethnic Albanians got their microstate of Kosovo at the expense of Serbia, while Kosovo now includes Serbian enclaves.

Even in countries with more stable borders, outspoken regionalist or separatist parties take a share of the electorate, like in Scotland, Wales, and Catalonia. In Belgium, Flemish parties that want to reform or even dismantle the state dominate politics. They feel stuck with poorer and inefficient French-speaking Wallonia. And Italy has its separatist Northern League that profits from a northern sentiment of being squeezed by the poor south for subsidies it can ill-afford.


The already long-simmering north-south split in Italy has proven a precursor for the current crisis in Europe. Large money transfers were sent southwards, provoking opposition in the north but also in the south, which suffered under the burdens that accompanied such largesse. There have been large cutbacks in public services, and unemployment has skyrocketed.

Since the economic crisis broke out six years ago, Euroskepticism has also advanced. Feelings of discontent are further strengthened by longstanding issues such as immigration and ongoing cuts to the welfare state. In several countries, this has led to the rise of rightist, in other cases leftist, populist parties. This is accompanied by a blurring of positions of both right and left. Traditionally, the left promotes an extended welfare state and is progressive on social-cultural issues like immigration and crime, while the reverse is true for the right. But many voters, primarily the less-educated, combine pro-welfare opinions with quite conservative positions on cultural themes. In their opinion, public services should be improved. Elder care is often mentioned, but immigrants should be excluded and criminals should be given harsher punishments.  Several right-wing populist parties were successful after adding specific leftist political views, particularly regarding health care and pensions, to their nationalist and repressive discourses. The so-called horseshoe-model of left and right has been closed at the bottom. In addition to distinctions between rich and poor, or religious and secular, a gap has emerged between the highly-educated, embracing individualistic and cosmopolitan values, and profiting from open borders on the one hand, and on the other hand, the less educated, more nationalist, community-oriented, and nostalgic, who all feel threatened by globalization and immigration.

The nature of right-wing populist movements differs by country, and it is dangerous to lump them together. Parties do have their own controversial hobbyhorses, and when confronted with their differences, right-wing populist leaders frequently feel an urge to distance themselves from colleagues in other countries. Nevertheless, they all profit from similar discontent in their societies, relating to immigration, globalization, European integration, and economic stagnation. They all attract a comparable electorate, and often have a charismatic leader who claims to be in touch with the common people.

There are still some points of contention between these rightist movements.While the Dutch Freedom Party defends hard-won gay rights against bigoted Muslims, sexual diversity is strongly opposed by similar parties in other countries. Israeli actions in the Middle East are often backed by rightist populist parties in northwestern Europe, particularly in Norway, Britain, and the Netherlands, while many other rightist movements in eastern and southern Europe have an anti-Semitic past. The further east and southeast we go in Europe, the more rough and anti-democratic radical right-wing parties seem to become, as they are often attempting to mirror some of the more authoritarian aspects of the communist era that substantial elements in their electorates view nostalgically. Hungary’s Jobbik (Movement for a Better Hungary) and Greece’s Golden Dawn are outright racist and are alied with goons who attack Romas and immigrants.

Populism in the rich Alpine countries is again something different. Where elsewhere it’s realistic to consider a right-wing populism of those left behind socially and economically, in this case the winners have begun demonstrating an isolationist mountain mentality. The Swiss People’s Party is strongest in the most conservative cantons where the nation was born, hardly a zone of deprivation, while Italy’s Northern League also advocates the interests of the rich north. Equally, voters in Bavaria, Germany’s prosperous southland, are casting their ballots for the more conservative regional branch of the Christian Democrats, which intends to leave no gap to its right. In southern Europe, more left-wing or centrist populists are catching fire. Spain has its Podemos (We Can), and Greece its Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left), which became that nation’s largest party during the 2014 European election, while large stretches of Italy have embraced the Five Star Movement of the clownish populist Beppe Grillo. These parties flourish on anger about austerity measures and, somewhat contrary to their rightist northern counterparts, attract a raft of votes among young urban populations.


The geographical redistribution of support for the populist right will be a product of globalization, deindustrialization, economic crisis, and aging, often shrinking, populations. Young, educated populations in service-oriented urban regions seem to be assuming leadership roles in many countries. Inner cities are booming and trending increasingly leftist and liberal. At the same time, industrial towns are struggling, along with older suburbs that are in decay, as the affluent opt for life in the inner city or the more remote suburbs. Exactly these kinds of areas are embracing the populist right. Recent elections in Sweden confirmed these trends, with the moderate right losing ground to the left in the cities, and the populist right, like Sverigedemokraterna (Swedish Democrats), making substantial inroads outside the urban core.

Although earlier more radical rightist parties were often embraced by deprived areas within the large cities of France, Britain, and the Netherlands, the new right-wing populism clearly derives its strength from outside the urban cores. The lower middle class suburbs, exurbs, and the countryside are the sources of many such votes. On the rightist populist map, London’s eastern commuter belt, Amsterdam’s satellite towns, and Copenhagen’s suburbs stand out respectively as strongholds for Britain’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the Dutch PVV, and the Danish People’s Party (DF).  While France’s National Front clearly curls around Paris, its voters are almost absent inside the Périphérique—the ring road that defines the outer limits of Paris proper.

Meanwhile, the protest-vote has been suburbanized. Although problems related to immigration have been spreading as well, voting for the anti-immigrant policies seem to be primarily preventive votes. The base of support is not just a geographic notion. Right-wing populism seems to derive from a rejection of urban problems and paradigms like multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, and environmentalism. Today’s populist right stands up against the out-of-touch, politically-correct elites and claims to represent the common sense of “the ordinary people.”

Apart from this anti-urban notion, it is remarkable how support for rightist populism does show the re-emergence of several old fault lines. When there is confusion about identities, when foreign powers have ruled, or when whole populations have been displaced, there seems to be fertile ground for the emergence of populist zealots. The south of the Netherlands, once Spanish-controlled territory and later economically deprived, is now a prime place for populism, even when nowadays it is as prosperous as the rest of the country. Old sentiments are persistent. People are still talking about the “arrogant and cold-blooded Hollanders” from the western provinces to which the south was once added and quickly being subordinated. It is remarkable how the Dutch south is a stronghold of both the leftist populist SP as well as the rightist PVV. This Catholic area is now rapidly secularizing and in search of new heroes and identities. In short, the political spectrum is no longer left-to-right but rather bends around on itself in a Calder-like circle.

Notable cross-border patterns of support for right-wing populism also exist. For instance, there is a visible protest-strip from Dutch Western Brabant, through the Belgian region of Flanders into Northern France. According to Filip Dewinter, leader of the right-wing Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest), this is the old Flanders, which is now distributed across three countries. However, the Dutch PVV is also strong on the nation’s eastern border, while no discontent is apparent on the German side. Germany has its own protest-strip along its eastern fringes, an impoverished area that was once home to World War II refugees from further east. Even in eastern Germany it is obvious how support for Die Linke goes along with high percentages for the Euroskeptic (Alternative for Germany (AfD)) and the extreme-right National Democratic Party (NDP). Given their quite similar non-conformist appearances, young radical supporters of the extreme-right and left are sometimes hardly distinguishable here.

In France, the National Front has always been strong in its eastern departments, areas that had been occupied by Germany for decades. The Mediterranean coast, home to both rightist former colonists and poor immigrants both from northern Africa, is a winning ground as well. During recent elections, the center of gravity of the Front’s support has moved somewhat to the north. This is partly a result of the so-called favorite son effect. Long thought a relatively ignored, deprived, and somewhat unattractive flyover country, its new charismatic leader Marine Le Pen won the election as a European Parliament candidate from what is commonly known as “La France Profonde” or deep France—not unlike Middle America.


The emergence of nationalist right-wing parties together with regionalist movements comes down to fundamental questions about belonging and about how far solidarity reaches. The construct of a united Europe has sought to challenge these issues and now seems to suffer from a certain degree of overstretch. Voters in the core nations that founded the European Union are turning against the process of ever-greater integration, just as the notion of a continuously expanding Europe begins to run up against its natural boundaries in the east. Its enlargement will be halted by complicated relations with Russia and Turkey, while being slowed and restrained by its own populations. The question where the outer borders of Europe or the European Union lie will be an ongoing issue, filled with conflict. This applies primarily to the eastern regions, given the more weakly defined identities and loyalties in these countries, but it is deeply relevant to the whole continent, as identification and solidarity decreases the further away from home these centrifugal forces spin.

The ongoing integration and expansion of the European Union signifies a continuing process of re-bordering. If one border gets opened or raised, for example by joining the European Union or the Schengen Treaty that erases internal border controls, the next border becomes more important and can turn out to be a barrier for someone else. The open traffic policies create an even sharper outer border that’s the scene of painful attempts to migrate and complex efforts of preventions. High fences surround Spanish exclaves in northern Africa, and accidents involving boats overloaded with refugees are ever more frequent. Former Yugoslavs now need to hassle their way through new borders between EU and non-EU, and between Schengen and non-Schengen, to see their old neighbors. And should Ukraine be further integrated into the West, its eastern Russia-oriented areas will certainly become more peripheral. The enthusiastic acceptance by several Western European politicians of Ukraine’s westward turn often neglects the complicated divisions within this country, putting at risk Ukraine’s unity and relations with Russia. Electoral geography shows that many more divisions are in play than just international borders that are sometimes arbitrary and even temporary.

A different consequence of further European integration and the diminishing importance of some of its internal borders could be the easing of tensions within some nation states. Separatist Catalonians in Spain or the Flemish in Belgium might feel less claustrophobic under a European umbrella with weak nation states and strong regions. But at the same time, in an even larger unity that lacks a common identity, people do feel alienated and will more easily fall back on old local identities, triggering a Balkanization of the whole continent.

Although in most countries the probability of conflict is not as immediate as in Ukraine, most European societies appear increasingly fragmented. Mutual understanding between groups decreases, and common interests are harder to find. Given the electoral consequences of this fragmentation, the formation of workable government coalitions will become a tougher sell, and political paralysis could be a scenario in many countries.

Easing tensions about European integration might be helped by an understanding of people’s views and fears. Many are aware of the importance of international policies. But they seem to believe politicians and cosmopolitan elites remain more than a little out of touch with their cosmopolitan orientation. This does not mean politicians should start blaming Europe for all their problems, which is sometimes the case. They should formulate the benefits of European cooperation beginning with people’s worldviews.

Politicians have a very challenging job nowadays. They should be profoundly aware of Europe’s complexities and turbulent past, and need to balance on a thin, high wire between the need to think and act on a larger scale while holding societies and nations together.



Josse de Voogd, an independent researcher specializing in electoral geography and based in the Netherlands, has a multidisciplinary background in anthropology, development studies, geography, and international relations.

[Photos courtesy of Swishphotos and Josse de Voogd]

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