– There is not a single issue that impacts every single country or voters in every single country in European Parliament elections. In every single country, there are different issues. And the one issue that could be common to everybody, which would be the EU issue, has become more important over time, but it’s still only one of the many possible issues that people could talk about in the election. And in some countries, they don’t even talk about the EU at all in European Parliament elections! – says Raul Gomez, sociologist from the University of Liverpool before the 2024 European Elections.

The entire transcription of the interview is available below the video.

Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: Welcome everybody to another episode of Cross-Border Talks. Today we are having a guest from Liverpool, from the University of Liverpool. Raúl Gómez is a political scientist, or a sociologist and political scientist in one. His research interests lie at the intersection of sociology, social psychology and comparative political science. In other words, he is an expert on public opinion, political parties, electoral behaviours: why people vote, why people vote particular parties, why people don’t vote at all, etcetera. We are going to ask him questions about electoral behaviour in less than 30 days before the European elections of 2024. These European elections are expected to be a breaking point in the history of the European community due to a couple of reasons.

First of all, we see a huge rise in sovereignist parties, far-right parties all over the European Union. Second, this electoral year was by no means calm, as we saw a huge wave of farmers’ protests. We also saw social protests of different kinds in different countries of the European Union in previous years. And there is still the issue of refugees and migration looming over united Europe. Therefore, this vote will be interesting with no doubts.

But what can we expect? Who will be engaged in voting? While we are not going to predict the results, we are going to discuss electoral behaviours and certain tendencies in behaviours of the European voters. Raúl, thank you very much for accepting our invitation. It’s great to have you today with us.

Thank you very much for having me.

In the first question, I’d like to tackle the issue of abstention and participation, as the European elections are usually the elections with lowest participation rates and lowest public interest. In my country, it is often said that they are very easy to win, because all a party must do is to mobilise their own hardline voters without any need to resort to those who are uncertain or hesitant. From your research as a sociologist and political scientist, what are the factors that decide upon participating or not participating? What are the central issues or problems that motivate people to vote in European elections? And what are, on the contrary, the factors that make people stay home on election day?

That’s actually a very good question. And the answer, I don’t know if it’s going to be as good as the question, but it’s quite complicated. One of the factors that really decides whether or not people turn out at a given election is how much they think there is at stake.

And the problem with European Parliament elections is that they are what, in political science, they call second-order elections. A second-order election is an election where there is not so much at stake. Those are elections that can have some influence over some policies, but they don’t determine the policies as much as, for example, a national election. Therefore, a local election, a regional election as well, would be in most cases a second-order election. Many people just don’t bother to vote because they don’t think there’s so much at stake. They think that things are not going to change massively if they don’t vote, and they just decide to stay at home.

Some people also use the elections to give soft warnings to parties to express their discontent, precisely because there’s not so much at stake. They can be a little bit creative, a little bit cheeky, and vote for other parties that maybe they wouldn’t vote for in a national election. That happens particularly with government parties, and that’s why government parties tend to perform less well at European Parliament elections, because people also use them to give them a little bit of a warning.

In terms of turnout, another factor that also explains why people vote or don’t vote, and that applies as well to European Parliament elections, is age. Because voting is a kind of habituation process. People develop the habit of voting, and that means that older people are always more likely to vote than younger people. And when people are not very mobilized to vote in a given election, and that tends to happen in European Parliament elections, it is usually younger people who are much less likely to vote, and older people who are more likely to vote. Those differences that you see normally in most elections, you see very, very clearly in European Parliament elections. And then in terms of issues that may mobilize, so concrete issues that may mobilize people at European Parliament elections, the problem with European Parliament elections is that, even though they’re named European Parliament elections, at the end of the day, there are 27 different elections, 27 national elections.

There is not a single issue that impacts every single country, voters in every single country in European Parliament elections. In every single country, there are different issues. And the one issue that could be common to everybody, which would be the EU issue, has become more important over time, but it’s still only one of the many possible issues that people could talk about in the election. And in some countries, they don’t even talk about the EU at all in European Parliament elections!

So it is very difficult to determine, to pinpoint particular issues that are going to be a factor everywhere, because we’re just talking about 27 different elections.

And looking at different elections in different countries over the last years, we observe a huge volatility of voting preferences. The times where some social classes voted traditionally for some parties are gone. Right now, new anti-systemic forces rise quickly and sometimes fall quickly, and the other parties look for more complex electorates.

Do you expect this trend to continue in the European election? And how would the great turmoils of the last months, including the wave of farmers’ protests, find a reflection during the vote? Will it feed the anti-systemic forces as well?

Yes, I would expect those dynamics and those trends to be present also at the European Parliament elections. Because as I said before, European Parliament elections are just a reflection of dynamics that happen at the national level. And if those changes are taking place in general elections at the national level, they’re for sure going to take place as well during the European Parliament elections.

There’s no doubt in my mind that that will be the case. Now, in terms of, for example, the farmers’ movement and other protests that have been taking place across Europe, I think their impact will again depend on the country. So, you know, farmers are, comparatively speaking, a very tiny proportion of the population, right? Even in those countries where agriculture is relatively more important. But in Europe, they’re a very tiny proportion of the population. So it is, I suppose, not farmers themselves that would be important here, but the issues that they raised in those protests.

Whether or not those issues are going to be important will depend on whether or not there was a party that tried to seize those issues and take advantage of those issues and mobilize on those issues. I know that in some countries, farmers’ movements actually raised many issues. One of the issues that they raised was this kind of anti-green agenda. It’s not the only issue. It was much more than that. But I know that some far-right parties tried to take advantage of that issue to make that issue their own, incorporate it into the agenda and say, hey, I am the one. ”If you’re actually concerned about this, I am the one that you should vote for.” That’s very important in politics, because in politics, what matters the most when there is a social concern or a social protest is that there is somebody who tries to seize that issue and mobilize on that issue. Now, the problem is that the success of that strategy in attracting voters that were not already voting for the far-right will depend on national factors.

So it will depend on things such as, for example, people’s political preferences, voters’ political preference, to what degree they agree or they don’t agree with the issues that were being raised by those movements. It will also depend on how salient these issues still are. So are these issues still in the media, are they on the political agenda or not? In many countries, those issues were very important at some point, but nobody talks about them anymore, right? Whereas in some countries, they still resonate. They’re still being talked about in the media.

It will also depend on how other parties have responded to them within each country. So it’s a very complicated picture. It’s actually very difficult to give you a yes or no answer here, because it will all depend on what has been going on in every single country.

Okay. The large expectation regarding these European elections is the rise of the souvereignist extreme right or however you call populist parties. They are a huge pool of parties.

There will probably be different tendencies within this segment of the political domain. I want to ask you about the profile of this type of voters, given that the EU is a union of states, and perhaps there are regional differences. Maybe, let’s say, a sovereignist voter of the eastern part of the EU is different from the sovereignist voter of the western part of Europe? Maybe there are also other nuances or maybe not?

How do you judge this type of voters and their profile?

So, in terms of political attitudes, we’re talking about voters that what they have in common is their conservative views on cultural issues, lifestyle issues, negative attitudes towards immigration, ethnic minorities, social change more generally. So we’re talking about voters that feel threatened by changes taking place in society. They try to respond to those by supporting far-right parties.

Sociologically speaking, the most consistent finding, I would say, in the research that has been dealing with far-right parties is that across, I’d say, all European countries, these parties tend not to be very successful among people with higher levels of education, particularly people with a university degree. It is among people that have between low and medium levels of education that they find more support. It doesn’t mean that everybody who doesn’t have a university degree votes for these parties. What it means is that they tend to get more support among those sectors than they get among other sectors of the population. Now, besides that finding, which is very robust, and we can find that in almost every single country, there are other things that characterize these voters that, you know, there is more variation of this. So far-right parties tend to be more successful among people in rural areas rather than people in urban areas.

But there’s also some variation, some exceptions to this rule across different countries. They’re also more successful among men than among women. But, again, there’s a couple of exceptions there.

And so in terms of differences between Central and Eastern Europe and Western Europe, what I would say is that probably in Central and Eastern Europe, these voters tend to have, in terms of economic issues, they tend to be more in favor of the state intervention in the economy. They are more interventionist than many of these far-right voters in Western Europe. In Western Europe, it depends. There is a lot of heterogeneity between these voters. Some have more pro-market orientations. Many have less pro-market orientations.

And so what these parties try to do is not to talk about issues related to, you know, economics and redistribution and things like that. They try not to talk a lot about that because their voters are so divided. I would say many Central and Eastern European countries, their voters are actually not so divided on these issues, as is the case in Western Europe.

And we can see that in, you know, in many, many different countries where even those, you know, members of the far-right in those countries tend to have relatively more interventionist attitudes towards the state and the role of the state in the economy.

Having had a look at the far-right, which is rising in the polls, we also need to look on the opposite side of the spectrum. And there we see the left, which has no reasons to celebrate. And at this moment, I wanted to ask why.

Is it impossible to create parties that could attract different left-wing voters? I mean, after the industrial working class has been decimated, the left needed to look for voters in different groups, starting from the still existing workers and ending with women of middle class, but of feminist and open-minded views. So is it impossible to create parties that could attract different voters? Or is it something else specific about the left-wing voters that could explain why this political current has been undergoing a huge crisis? And this is a crisis that goes on for years.

Yeah, I don’t think it’s impossible to be able to attract different groups of voters with different preferences. It is, of course, more difficult to do so in a world where, you know, elections are fought on many different issues and not necessarily on those issues that you would like them to be fought on. So not just, let’s say, bread and butter issues, but also issues about migration, multiculturalism, social diversity, climate change and so on. Many other things. 

Obviously, it’s much easier for a group of people to agree on an issue than it is for them to agree on many issues, particularly when people may have different opinions, very different opinions across a range of different issues, right? So it’s very difficult to be able to satisfy everybody. Whatever position you take, there are always going to be people who are not fully satisfied. And it is true that that is a problem for the left, but I would say it’s equally a problem for the right. And sometimes, you know, even far-right parties, for example, their potential voters, you know, there is a ceiling to how many voters would support far-right policies in most countries. And in those countries where the far-right has actually been successful, it has been by forging alliances with, for example, you know, the mainstream conservative center-right parties and their voters, not on their own.

Sometimes that can be done. Parties can be very skillful sometimes in forging those alliances. But it is true that the left has struggled with it. And I suppose, and this is just speculation here, so I don’t really have the answers, but I suppose one of the problems here has to do with, you know, with the left, you know, how the left has been trying to fight elections across most of Europe and the Western world.

So a lot of times left-wing parties fight elections, asking voters to stop something, right? Stop the far-right. Stop them getting away at rights. Stop them, I don’t know, dismantling welfare policies and so on. And that’s a good mobilizing factor sometimes, and it does work sometimes, but it has its limits as well. So we know a lot about what left-wing parties don’t want, about what they don’t like, but we don’t really know more, we don’t know much about what they really want. What kind of society do they want to build? It looks like there is a vacuum there.

With the crisis of the welfare state, the end of the Berlin Wall, it’s like the left doesn’t really have an idea of what kind of society and what kind of, you know, what kind of solutions they’re looking for. And there are many big questions, some of them very concrete questions that, for example, remain unanswered. So I don’t know, is it possible, for example, to build a society that maximizes the positive effects of, you know, migration and cultural and ethnic diversity while minimizing the less positive consequences that some sectors of the population perceive to have from that? Or is it possible to build like a green economy that doesn’t come at the expense of the less well-off? How can you provide strong public services and redistribution in an aging society and things like that? These big questions, not small questions. And I don’t think many left-wing parties are actually answering them.

So what they tend to do is to kick the can down the road, right? They try to mobilize voters on the basis of somebody else’s agenda, but not on the basis of their own agenda. And that, of course, is a problem, you know, in the long run, because you’re always trying to be on their defense, but you’re never actually proposing something to voters, an idea of something that you want to achieve, an ultimate goal.

And I think that’s probably a problem that many left-wing parties have nowadays compared to decades ago.

Finally, I want to again ask about the regional specifics of voting in the EU. To what extent do you see such preferences that are available maybe for one region or the other, certain orientation that maybe exists more in certain places than in others? Is there a regional political preference, let’s say, in the EU for one or the other tendency in European politics?

You mean like comparing, for example, Central and Eastern Europe with Western Europe?

Yes, exactly. I don’t want to hint, but maybe, let’s say, the extreme left is more popular in certain parts of Europe than in others, or maybe the European Popular Party has certain preferences more in one region than in others, etc.

Yes, I think there is a certain process, a very slow process of convergence in many countries, but it is true that in Central and Eastern Europe politics was very different from the West, so you would have, a little bit what I was talking about before, you would have socially conservative parties that are in favor of state intervention in the economy, which is much less common in the West, whereas when you would look at progressive parties, you would normally see progressive parties with right-wing orientations on economic issues, but not so much with left-wing orientations on economic issues. I think those things are changing gradually and you see more variety, but it’s true that that has led to those kinds of regional specifics that you were mentioning before when it comes to voting, with left-wing parties being traditionally, or at least the kind of left-wing party that we tend to think about, we say left-wing, so we’re talking about left-wing parties that are left-wing on at least economic issues and probably also non-economic issues, so they’re progressive on both dimensions. It is true that those parties have traditionally struggled more in many Central and Eastern European countries than in West European countries, not in all of them, but in some of them.

And as I say, there is a slow process of change and things are still different between Central and Eastern Europe and Western Europe, but they’re becoming less different. So for example, when the far-right or many far-right parties emerged in Central and Eastern Europe, people were saying, well, you know, but that’s Central and Eastern Europe, that’s not happening in Western Europe. And then they started appearing as well in Western Europe.

So the thing with Central and Eastern European societies is that they are relatively young democracies, and because they’re young democracies, usually voters were kind of more volatile and they didn’t have very strong ties with traditional parties, as was the case in Western Europe. In Western Europe, there were many voters, and there still are voters that have very strong ties to traditional parties, and they’re less likely to move to newer parties, and that is kind of changing. And there is this kind of very gradual convergence.

It was also the case that Central and Eastern Europe was very, very volatile, as I was saying. It has become slightly less volatile over time, whereas Western Europe is becoming more volatile. we can still see those differences, but there are signs that some of those things are starting to be converging slowly across different countries.

Thank you very much for this short but very detailed and analytic perspective on how Europeans vote. I think it is useful to know Europe and the European Union through the political life and political representation, and I think our listeners would be happy with what we discussed. I invite them to follow us on the numerous social media platforms where we are present, including YouTube, Twitter, Substack, etc.

Subscribe to Cross-border Talks’ YouTube channel! Follow the project’s Facebook and Twitter page! And here are the podcast’s Telegram channel and its Substack newsletter!

Like our work? Donate to Cross-Border Talks or buy us a coffee!

About The Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content