The analysis’s goal is to foresee how the new trends brought in by the pandemic uncertainty and still unpredictable variables will shape the future political dynamics by relying on a solid analysis of the previous elections.
This article is the result of a collaboration between ECFR, strategic partner of the Compagnia di San Paolo, and ITHACA. The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) is a pan-European think tank conducting independent and cutting-edge research to pursue a coherent, effective and values-based European foreign policy.
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With a budget of 1.8 trillion euros, the Next Generation EU arguably represents the most ambitious European public investment plan since the EU’s foundation. The plan does not only have the potential to reverse the current economic recession, but it could also potentially influence political dynamics in some EU countries. This is particularly true for those countries characterised by a deep internal divide between rural and metropolitan areas and among regions. The reason is that a majority of EU investments will be directed to those areas that suffered the most, both socially and economically, over the last few years. In Poland and Italy, anti-EU parties have politically managed to exploit the resentment in those territories, which have turned in a large number of votes over the last political elections in 2018 (Italy) and 2019 (Poland). However, since 2020 a change in political trends seems to have started to emerge, with the Covid-19 pandemic putting new categories on the table. In Poland, ruled by the rightist and Eurosceptic PiS government, the official governmental candidate Andzrej Duda got in July 2020 a very weak electoral reconfirmation (51% of votes), a sign of disaffection of Polish citizens towards the ruling coalition and its management of the pandemic and of social-economic issues. In Italy’s case, the pandemic emergency had led to a political process that ended in the country being governed by the pro-EU Prime Minister Mario Draghi through a wider coalition after the two Conte governments. The new ruling alliance even includes the anti-European League, which has softened its tone towards the EU institutions, while one-party opposition by Brothers of Italy remains strongly Eurosceptic and nationalist.
The analysis’s goal is to foresee how the new trends brought in by the pandemic uncertainty and still unpredictable variables will shape the future political dynamics by relying on a solid analysis of the previous elections. With this aim, the first part will look at the last parliamentary elections by analysing the vote along the right-left and the anti-EU-pro-EU axes at a municipal level. The second part discusses the future dynamics that might emerge in the new phase, following the economic and social troubles caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The adopted methodology, developed in cooperation with Ithaca, draws on the electoral results at a municipal level, namely the political elections of 2018 in Italy and those of 2019 in Poland. These data were downloaded from the database of the national statistics agency website of both countries and the data made available from the European Commission, which were utilised for the article “The Geography of EU Discontent”. Drawing from these raw databases, the analysis proceeded in four phases. First, every Polish and Italian party was classified along with eight political categories (extreme right, right, centre-right, centre, centre-left, left, extreme left, other) and five stances towards Europe (strongly anti-EU, somehow anti-EU, somehow pro-EU, strongly pro-EU, not relevant). Second, two maps were generated along the right-left axis and pro-EU and anti-EU axis with the software GIS. Third, the data were divided with the software R in four categories in line with the number of voters, which is utilised as a proxy for the population: lower than 10.000 (villages), between 10.000 and 50.000 (towns), between 50.000 and 100.000 (small cities), and higher than 100.000 (big cities). Fourth, the average votes in each of the four above-mentioned categories (villages, towns, small cities, big cities) at a national and regional level were calculated.
The analysis brings together two different countries, Italy and Poland, with very different political, social and economic trends. Italy is among the EU founding members, while Poland only joined through the massive enlargement of 2004; both belong to NATO and both have specific defence and security priorities: Italy on one side, being at the very centre of the Mediterranean, makes the North African and Balkans dossiers its foreign policy priority; Poland on the other, between Berlin and Moscow and still very sensitive, alongside with fellow members states for the Baltic region, to Russian plans and initiatives. Poland is among the fastest-growing European economies and with the lowest unemployment rates, while Italy has the lowest performances in Europe.
However, there are also some similarities, which make the two countries comparable to a certain extent. First, the two countries saw an increase in the share of anti-EU votes over the last years. Second, they are characterised by a wide regional divide, which for Italy is between the North and the South, while for Poland is between the North-West and the South-East. Third, both countries are and will benefit massively from the EU funding - Italy will be heading the beneficiary list of the Recovery Plan, while Poland still strongly benefitted from the EU regional and structural funds, a critical factor to keep in mind to analyse Polish perceptions of Europe and the consequent electoral choices.
Cities vs villages and North-West vs South East: a comparative analysis of Poland
The “pro-EU cities vs anti-EU towns” categorisation is traditionally a key element in the political and electoral analysis of numbers and voting trends, alongside age, social roles, education and gender categorisation.
When looking at Poland, the data show a wide divide between the countryside and the cities in both the pro-EU vote (somehow pro-EU, strongly pro-EU) and anti-EU parties (somehow anti-EU, strongly pro-EU). At the national level, the vote for parties that were critical of the current EU institutional infrastructure shows a decreasing pattern as the number of voters increases: 61.42% in villages, 48.83% in towns, 41.10% in small cities, and 39.82% in big cities. However, at a regional level, the data show that the difference in voting behaviour does not depend on Poland’s regional GDP differences. The Masovia region (Mazowieckie), which is the richest province (the GDP per capita is 22,500 € and 30,500 € for the whole region and for Warsaw respectively, compared to 13,900 € as the average Polish GDP), shows a difference in support for the anti-EU parties between urban and rural voters which is higher than the national one. This is even more evident when comparing the Polish capital and the villages within this region regarding the average vote for anti-EU parties, respectively, 34.62% and 68.71%.
Thus, a more insightful approach is looking at the regional dynamics based on the North-West/South-East divide. In this respect, the analysis compares six regions, which are located across the country, with a big city. These are the North-Western regions of Lower Silesian (Dolnośląskie), West Pomerania (Zachodniopomorskie) and Pomerania (Pomorskie); and the South-Eastern regions of Lublin (Lubelskie), Podlasie (Podlaskie), and the Holy Cross (Świętokrzyskie). In the North-Western regions (Lower Silesian, West Pomerania, and Pomerania), the anti-EU parties’ average vote is 12.78% higher in villages than big cities. In the South-Eastern regions (Lublin, Podlasie and Holy Cross), the vote for anti-EU parties is 24.81% higher in villages than in big cities. Such a disparity can be partially explained by the difference in the average votes for anti-EU parties in big cities of the North-West (37.58%) and the South-East (46.14%), but even more by the difference between North-Western and South-Eastern villages, whose vote for anti-EU parties is respectively 50.36% and 70.96%. The centrality of the rural-urban divide is confirmed by comparing votes for anti-EU parties between villages and towns, which have very similar percentages in the North-West and the South-East, respectively 7.98% and 9.29%.
The anti-EU/pro-EU divide follows the same pattern of the distribution of votes for the right and the other parties across the country. Overall, right-wing parties scored 73.57% in villages, 57.17% in towns, 47.71% in small cities and 44.66% in big cities. In a nutshell, Polish voters who prefer anti-EU parties are often the same voters who vote for the right, as the anti-EU parties are the rightist ones. Once again, there is a divide between rural and urban areas in the distribution of votes for right-wing parties (extreme right, right) and between the North-West and the South-East of the country. These two electoral cleavages (rural/urban and North-West/South-East) can be observed when looking at the distribution of votes for the rightist parties in the three aforementioned North-Western regions (Lower Silesian, West Pomerania, and Pomerania) and the South-Eastern ones (Lublin, Podlasie and Holy Cross). In the three North-Western regions, this is 61.77% in villages, 49.94% in towns, 43.29% in small cities, and 42.44% in big cities. In the three South-Eastern regions, this is 83.11% in villages, 66.45% in towns, 66.19% in small cities, and 51.98% in big cities.
The aforementioned results in terms of urban-rural can be explained by looking at some traditional characteristics of the Polish society, which links to cities’ vibrant role in social and cultural life. When looking at the first divide (rural/urban), cities are often the hosts of major European companies, especially start-ups, and high ranked universities. Some of the biggest cities are not located in the regions with sensitive historical backgrounds, like those closer to the Belarusian and Ukraine borders. In the case of Warsaw, for example, and its pro-Europe major Rafał Trzaskowski, who lost the 2020 Presidential run, it is characterised by very strong activism that led to the creation of a public alliance between the four capitals of the four EU member states belonging to the Visegrad format. This led to a unique situation where four rather Eurosceptic countries, although in minor tones for Slovakia, had their capitals truly supporting a more pro-European stance and more cooperation with the EU. When looking at the second divide (North-West/South-East), the results reflect the difference between the North-West and the South-East, as the regions closer to the border with Germany and the Baltic region are traditionally more internationally oriented to a pan-European dimension. These areas historically benefit from regional and international trades, which led to the emergence of a vibrant middle class. On the contrary, the regions in the South-East are more characterised by a rural economy.
Different areas and different dynamics: the rural-urban divide in the North and South of Italy
When looking at the rural-urban divide in the Italian 2018 elections, a less dramatic decrease can be observed in the support for the anti-EU parties as the number of voters increases compared to Poland: 58.89% in villages, 57.52% in towns, 54.99% in small cities and 52.94% in big cities. However, voting dynamics differ when comparing the areas, as the rural-urban divide cannot be found in the entire country. For example, the average votes for anti-EU parties is 13.44% higher in villages than in big cities of Lombardy (Lombardia), Piedmont (Piemonte) and Veneto (Veneto). In the Southern regions of Sicily (Sicilia), Campania (Campania) and Puglia (Apulia), an opposite dynamic can be observed, as the vote for anti-EU parties is 3.26% higher in the big cities than in villages. A similar pattern can also be observed when comparing villages and towns and villages and small cities. In the three aforementioned regions of the North (Lombardy, Piedmont and Veneto), the vote for anti-EU parties in villages is 4.79% higher than in towns and 9.89% higher than in small cities. In the Southern regions (Apulia, Campania and Sicily), the vote for anti-EU parties in villages is 4.05% lower than in towns and 5.70% lower than in small cities. Interestingly enough, these dynamics are not uniform in the central regions. For example, in Lazio (Lazio), the villages voted more for anti-EU parties than the small cities (+5.14%) and big cities (+7.78%), but less than towns (-1.66%). In Tuscany (Toscana), villages voted for anti-EU parties more than the big cities (+19.08%), but less than towns (-2.40%) and small cities (-2.46%).
The previous analysis shows that Italy’s voting behaviours were influenced by the GDP per capita divide between the North (36,100 €) and the South (19,600 €). In a nutshell, the differences in anti-EU parties can be mostly observed in the country’s richer areas, mostly located in the North and the Centre. However, they did not reflect in all the country uniformly, as the case of Lazio (34,200 €) and Tuscany (31,900 €) shows. The first finding can be explained by the increasing difference between rural and urban areas in the North of the country, which emerged since the crisis of 2008-2011, which hit the small and middle businesses, mostly located in rural areas of the centre-North. This might have determined and created resentment towards the national and European establishment, reflected in voting behaviours. Moreover, such a difference can be explained by the similarities between cities and villages in the South when looking at the lack of economic opportunities, which does not have the same magnitude in the rest of the country. Another element might have been traditional voting behaviours, as the rural areas of the North were traditionally voting for the League (Lega).
When looking at the distribution of votes for parties, some other dynamics emerge specifically to Italy. The Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle) was listed as a centrist party in the analysis. The political organisation was particularly popular in the South, where the group acquired wide consent in big cities. While in the North the anti-establishment resentment was more widespread in the rural area, in the South it also included voters in big cities. It follows that the parties which were at the centre of the political spectrum (centre-right, centre, centre-left) had an average 10.05% lower percentage of votes in the villages than in big cities in the three aforementioned Northern regions (Lombardy, Piedmont, Veneto), but a 5.61% higher percentage in villages than in big cities in the three selected southern regions (Apulia, Campania, Sicily). In this respect, it is useful to stress that similar dynamics with Poland can be found when looking at the distribution of the votes for the right across the entire country. When considering the North and the South’s three aforementioned regions, a higher percentage of votes for the right (extreme right, right, centre-right) can be observed can be observed in villages than cities: +13.74% in the North and +9.66% in the South.
Bridging the gap: the impact of the new EU policies on the current rural-city divide
The previous analysis shows that the resentment towards the EU and the national establishment is widely distributed in Italy and Poland, but it is more widespread in the North of Italy and the South-East of Poland. Moreover, Italy’s data analysis shows that such a sentiment goes beyond the rural area by including also big cities.
As Europe struggles with the third Covid-19 pandemic wave, there are already visible and tangible political trends that characterise 2021 if compared to 2020. Firstly, the EU has gradually shifted from an emergency-based approach to a more structured, and above all, pan-European one. Despite the critics and evident Achilles’ heel that still characterise the EU pandemic management, it is notable to see how Health, once a purely national competence, has already become a joint European priority, a process that is unlikely to be reversible, especially if included in broader multilateral management. Secondly, if the Mask Diplomacy characterised 2020, 2021 will became the year of the Scramble for Vaccines, with unprecedented consequences on the European architecture of research & development, production and distribution and on Europe’s role and leverage in the Vaccines’ Great powers competition. Looking ahead, one might already try to anticipate 2022 trends searching among those still hidden today, namely the social, economic, and political consequences of the pandemic, the biggest European social crisis since the end of the World War II.
On one side, much will depend on important leadership changes already in the political pipeline of Europe, like in the case of Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel will leave after 15 years leading Germany and guiding the EU; or France, with President Emmanuel Macron facing key elections which will mark the country’s political future and a probable rightist electoral drift, led by Marie Le Pen. They might be indeed driven by re-setting political processes adopted to meet the pandemic challenges and economic opportunities deriving from the massive EU investment plan embodied by the Next Generation EU. This is particularly significant as the plan is designed for countries to boost investments in those areas suffering from economic stagnation or recession over the previous years, which often coincides with small villages and towns in rural areas. In such a scenario, the Next Generation EU can turn into a game-changer in bridging the economic gap between big cities and small villages, which has been a powerful political driver behind the increase in votes for anti-EU parties. In a few words, a new wave of economic growth in rural areas boosted by the Next Generation EU might turn into a change in the political maps of Europe. This is especially true in those countries where anti-EU parties have increased their vote share also by exploiting the cleavage between cosmopolitan cities and left-behind villages. New available funds might lead to political repositioning of parties towards the EU.
This is particularly true in the case of Italy, where Prime Minister Mario Draghi will need to implement in parallel two very ambitious plans: the vaccination and the Recovery ones. This might also be Poland’s case, which is facing a deep political crisis inside the ruling coalition with regard to the Recovery plans management. This political instability follows two other major events that have characterised Poland’s role in Europe and its domestic society in 2020. On one side, the Polish-Hungarian harsh criticism on EU policy regarding conditionality, the rule of law and EU funds disbursement; on the other, the massive social protests launched by Polish women after the Polish court ruling on abortion ban, an exceptional stance if we consider Poland’s strong catholic background which supported Polish citizens to fight the Communist regime and which today constitutes one of the key pillars of Polish society.
In such a new environment, specific financial and political attention should be given to those areas which we identified in the study as expressing resentment towards current national and European policies. For the first time, national governments have the chance to utilise a wide program of investments, which can target such areas specifically both to boost their development and fill the current political gap in the area were the perception towards the EU was particularly negative in both Italy and Poland.
About the Authors
Matteo Colombo, ECFR-Fondazione Compagnia di San Paolo pan-European Fellow
Teresa Coratella, Program Manager, European Council on Foreign Relations