How the crises will shape voting in the European elections

The fears that will shape the European elections

Elections driven by crisis anxiety rather than hope for a better future


European politics is not simply divided between left and right, and between pro- and anti-European integration attitudes, but between different "crisis tribes" whose members have been traumatized by key events. Over the past decade, Europe has experienced and continues to experience economic, security, health, climate and migration crises that have created political identities across and between countries. This has created an atmosphere of anxiety, with 6 out of 10 European citizens believing that their respective countries are heading in the wrong direction. Yet the prevailing political analysis does not fully understand the competing existential traumas running through and between the different member states. Yet these traumas are likely to dominate nearly 20 elections across the continent in 2024.

In the run-up to this year's European elections, political leaders are trying to determine which issues will define the next phase of European politics. The left-right divide is a less useful indicator of electoral behavior than it once was, not least because in many countries parties on both sides of the political spectrum are converging on many key issues, from immigration to social spending. The divide between pro- and anti-European parties is also likely to be a poor guide, unlike the 2019 elections, which took place while the Brexit was still being negotiated: most far-right parties have abandoned their promises to leave the European Union, while no leader is talking about a federal Europe. How, then, are we to envisage the future of European politics?

"The prevailing political analysis underestimates the competing existential traumas that run through the different member states and set them against each other".To answer this question, the European Council on Foreign Relations commissioned a survey of 11 European countries: EU member countries Germany, France, Poland, Italy, Spain, Denmark, Romania, Portugal and Estonia, and two non-EU European countries, Great Britain and Switzerland. The survey compared party support with attitudes in different policy areas, and with attitudes to the performance of EU institutions and national governments. The study's rapporteurs note that " the prevailing political analysis underestimates the competing existential traumas running through the various member states and pitting them against each other ".


Over the past 15 years, Europe has experienced five major crises. The climate crisis forced Europeans to imagine a world in peril. The global financial crisis led Europeans to doubt that their children would enjoy a higher standard of living than their own. The migration crisis triggered an identity panic centered on questions of multiculturalism and the meaning of nation-states. The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the vulnerability of our healthcare systems in a globalized world. And the war in Ukraine shattered the illusion that a major war would never return to the European continent. The authors of the study point out that these five crises have several points in common: " they have been felt throughout Europe, albeit at different intensities; they have been experienced as an existential threat by many Europeans; they have had a considerable impact on government policies; and they are far from over. "

Depending on the social group, one crisis generally plays a dominant role over the others.The term polycrisis The term "polycrisis" was coined to suggest that the five crises are unfolding more or less simultaneously, that the shock of their cumulative interaction is more overwhelming than their sum, and that these different crises have no single cause or universal solution. However, one characteristic of polycrisis that isn't talked about enough is that, for different societies and social groups, one crisis generally plays a dominant role over the others. The Gilets jaunes crisis demonstrated this, in France, by pitting those worried about the end of the month (economic crisis) against those worried about the end of the world (climate crisis). With this in mind, the authors of the study assert that " everyone wants their own crisis ".

Five tribes for five crises

The main conclusion of the study is that no single crisis dominates the European collective imagination. Climate change, the war in Ukraine, Covid-19, immigration and the global economic crisis - each of these five issues has its own group of citizens who cite a particular crisis as the one that concerns them most. These groups are unevenly distributed across generations and countries.

Why not enjoy unlimited reading of UP'? Subscribe from €1.90 per week.

Of the 372 million EU citizens of voting age, some 74 million cite the climate, 73 million covid-19 and 70 million the economic crisis as their main concern. This is followed by 59 million EU citizens who are mainly concerned about immigration, and 49 million who focus on Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Around 47 million people find it difficult to associate themselves with any of the five crises.

Europe's "crisis tribes". By number of voters.

These five groups are Europe's various "crisis tribes". Like all tribes, they share a common history of origin. They share language and sensibilities. They have totems and chiefs, but also internal fractures.

Geography of European crisis tribes

Crisis tribes are not confined to a single nation, and are unevenly distributed across Europe.

Germany is the only country where the greatest number of people name immigration as the issue that concerns them most; recent migrant arrivals may have revived memories of 2015, when the country took in a million people, including Syrians fleeing Bashar al-Assad. France and Denmark are the only EU countries whose citizens consider climate change to be the most important crisis. Italian and Portuguese citizens point to the economic turbulence of the last fifteen years; the euro crisis will have left a long trail in these countries. In Spain, Great Britain and Romania, citizens see the covid-19 pandemic as the problem that has affected them most. Estonians, Poles and Danes regard the war in Ukraine as the most transformative of crises.

Different "crisis tribes" - by country. In percent
Based on responses to the question, "Which of the following topics has, over the past decade, most changed the way you think about your future?"

[adning id="34073" no_iframe="1"]

While some crises loom large in the national imagination, others are barely mentioned. For example, Estonians' concerns about the war in Ukraine and the economy dominate everything. Immigration is the main source of concern for only a handful of Poles, Estonians, Romanians and Portuguese, even though refugees from Ukraine continue to arrive. At the time of the survey, Germans did not yet seem to be concerned about economic difficulties. In France, Great Britain, Italy and Spain, an almost shockingly low number of people point to the war in Ukraine as the crisis that is having the greatest impact on the way they see their future.

Crisis tribe demographics

The crises also divide Europeans by age, gender and level of education.

Young people are more concerned by the climate crisis than other crisesUnsurprisingly, young people are more concerned about the climate crisis than other crises, with 24 % of 18-29 year-olds particularly worried. In Great Britain, France, Germany, Denmark and Switzerland, young people tend to prioritize climate issues. However, in other countries, young people are more focused on issues such as the global economic crisis (in Estonia and Portugal), the war in Ukraine (in Poland) and covid-19 (in Spain and Romania). On the other hand, when all countries are considered, the over-70s are the most mobilized by the war in Ukraine (27 %) and focus more on immigration than the younger generations. Covid-19 is the only crisis in Europe that does not seem to concern one generation more than another.

In terms of education, the best-educated people in the 11 European countries see climate change as the most transformative crisis, slightly ahead of economic problems. Conversely, people with lower levels of education are more likely to feel affected by immigration. This trend can be observed in Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy and Poland.

To fight against disinformation and to favour analyses that decipher the news, join the circle of UP' subscribers.

Political parties and crisis tribes

European crises give people experiences whose impact is not clearly framed by left-right, pro-immigration or anti-immigration, establishment or populist divisions. On the contrary, all these experiences are marked by a strong sense of disappointment at governments' inadequate crisis management - and by the fear that crises will return.

The climate and immigration crises take the form of a confrontation between two "extinction rebellions".The two crises dominating the media and political debate in the run-up to the elections are climate change and immigration. And the struggle between the two tribes that follow these issues most closely takes the form, according to the study's authors, of a clash between two "extinction rebellions". While climate advocates fear the extinction of human and other life forms, anti-immigration activists fear the disappearance of their nation and cultural identity.

Those who see immigration as the most serious crisis are most likely to vote for center-right or far-right parties. The data show that in Germany, this means a high probability of voting for the AfD; in France, for Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement National or Éric Zemmour's Reconquête.

The reverse is true for climate, where those who consider it the most important issue flock massively to green parties or parties such as the Socialists in Spain or the Civic Coalition and the Left in Poland.

France: Which political party best defends your ideas?

The climate and immigration tribes share the feeling that we are living in a time that is running out.We can assume that the climate and immigration tribes share the characteristic of being particularly sensitive to the time dimension of politics. They believe that if specific measures are not taken today, they will become impossible to implement tomorrow. They share the feeling that our time is running out.

The authors of the study point out that these two crisis tribes experience very different dynamics once their preferred parties are in power. When the immigration tribe sees right-wing parties in power, its members tend to relax on the issue. In Italy, immigration is surprisingly low on the agenda of many voters: only 10 % of the country's population and 17 % of supporters of the Italian Brotherhood (Fratelli d'Italia, the party of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni ) describe it as their most transformative crisis, even though the Italian Brotherhood were elected on a resolutely anti-immigration platform. A similar situation was observed in Poland with Law and Justice, before this party lost the last general election. This is reminiscent of the evolution of public opinion in Great Britain, where voters' attitudes towards immigration improved after the Brexit referendum, even as the number of people arriving on the territory increased.

Voters may see the election of a far-right government as a response to immigration fears, but they don't see the climate emergency as over with the election of the Greens.The climate tribe is behaving in the opposite way. Polls in Germany show that people continue to worry about the climate crisis even when their government has a strong climate program; they don't see the problem as solved. In short, voters may see the election of a far-right government as the answer to immigration fears - even if little actually changes - but they don't see the climate emergency as over with the election of the Greens.

For other crises, the dynamic is quite different. Members of the economic tribe are not united by left- or right-wing politics, but by an anti-government stance. They often hate the government in power, whatever its political orientation. For example, in Italy, 31 % of this group say they have no intention of voting in the next European elections, and 16 % don't know how they will vote. In France, 40 % of this group don't know which party best reflects their ideas.

This could be explained by the absence of any major difference between the austerity policies adopted by right-wing and left-wing governments in 2009-10. Rather than reinforcing the left-right divide, the economic crisis may have reduced its importance. During the various crises, countries that had center-left governments in place have replaced them with center-right parties, and vice versa. Thus, members of the economic crisis tribe are in a sense classic protest voters.

Members of both the war tribe and the pandemic tribe are much more supportive of the current government. The pandemic has weakened rather than strengthened populist parties in Europe, at least in the short term. In the long term, however, things could turn out differently, if recent elections in several EU member states, such as the Netherlands, Slovakia and parts of Germany, are anything to go by. These elections revealed the existence of anti-confinement, anti-Vax and anti-war groups born in the covid-19 era and reinvigorated since Russia's invasion of Ukraine. These seem to be strong political identities.

An examination of the distribution of tribes among the parties shows that some tribes have a highly concentrated political base. This means, for example, that the far right could use its credibility on immigration to reach other voters by focusing on climate, cost of living and other more general issues. The same applies to the climate, where young people are highly committed and could form a solid electoral base if political parties succeed in turning the European elections into a referendum on the subject. Many of the other traditional parties are "catch-all" parties, focusing on more than one crisis or different combinations of crises. These may find it difficult to get their supporters to vote in the European elections, where turnout is traditionally low.

Tribes in crisis and the European project

Jean Monnet said Europe will be forged in crisis and will be the sum of the solutions adopted to these crises." . But what happens when citizens begin to believe that neither their own country nor the EU will be able to resolve crises?

Voters may be motivated more by the anguish of past crises than by the hope of a better future.This is the backdrop to the forthcoming European Parliament elections, where many citizens may be motivated more by the anguish of past crises than by the hope of a better future. In the last elections, the central struggle was between populists who wanted to turn their backs on European integration and traditional parties who wanted to save the European project from Brexit and Donald Trump. But the next elections will be about projections rather than projects. It will be a contest between rival fears of rising temperatures, immigration, inflation and military conflict.

These five crises are important in the run-up to elections, but they all have different mobilization potential. The economic crisis often ends up demoralizing people rather than motivating them to turn out to vote. The study's authors suggest that establishment parties campaigning on the economy may find it difficult to pull their weight.

In the months following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the war has captured the continent's attention like no other issue. But citizens don't necessarily see this as an existential crisis facing Europe as a whole; many see the war as an existential crisis only for Ukraine and some of its immediate neighbors. Indeed, most members of the war tribe believe that NATO and the EU are not engaged in a war against Russia. A gap may have begun to open between European elites, who continue to talk about doing everything to support Kiev, and their voters, who are more focused on other crises. The Israel-Hamas war, which began after the poll was taken on the ground, is likely to have a stronger impact on European politics in some countries than the Russia-Ukraine war, but it would not be surprising if its fallout benefited the immigration tribe most of all, disrupting domestic politics.

The climate emergency and migration will shape this year's elections.It's climate and migration that look likely to shape this year's elections, as suggested by the result of the recent general election in the Netherlands, which put an anti-immigration party ahead in the polls and the left-wing pro-climate alliance led by Frans Timmermans in second place. The climate tribe is the EU's most favorable tribe. The nature of this crisis requires extensive international cooperation, so this tribe may well consider that the EU is better placed to take climate action than national states.

Unlike the climate tribe, members of the migration tribe tend to be more skeptical of the EU. They are the only group in which a majority expects the Union to collapse over the next 20 years. Its members are the most likely to vote for right-wing or far-right parties. They are the least supportive of renewable energies (although a majority are still in favor) and the biggest supporters of nuclear power and fossil fuels. Many say they prefer a leader who defends their country's independence to one who is committed to international cooperation.

A projection election

In the run-up to the 2019 European Parliament elections, many feared that populist and anti-European parties would capitalize on voters' fear of immigration to win a blocking minority in the EU's legislative body. Former White House chief strategist under Trump, Steve Bannon, hoped this would be the third triumph of an illiberal international after Brexit and Trump's election. But in reality, these populist parties failed and there was a surprising mobilization of pro-European voters who wanted to save the EU from disintegration.

The European elections will be a battle for supremacy between Europe's various crisis tribes.The traditional parties may have realized that they will find it difficult to turn the next elections into a referendum on the future of the European project. As a result, they are increasingly looking at the two most mobilizing crises - immigration and climate - and developing strategies that could upend the European political debates that have characterized these crises. The climate emergency has traditionally been the European liberal cause par excellence, as illustrated by European Commission initiatives such as net zero, the carbon border adjustment mechanism and Fit for 55. Today, however, the climate is being "renationalized", as the anti-green backlash becomes a powerful rallying cry for the anti-establishment right.

Immigration used to be the nationalist cause par excellence, but EU institutions and pro-European governments are now Europeanizing the issue. The EU establishment has seized on it with the aim of finding a common European solution, notably by adopting a common European policy on immigration and asylum.

The decisions taken by European leaders over the coming months on other crises will also shape Europe's future. Member states will have to answer questions on Ukraine's accession to the EU, support for the war effort, the budget for Europe's "Green Deal" and the details of a common asylum policy.

Each of Europe's five crises will have several livesconclude the authorsBut it is in the ballot box that they will live, die or be resurrected. The European elections will not only be a competition between left and right, eurosceptics and pro-Europeans, but also a battle for supremacy between Europe's various crisis tribes. Many voters will be striving to prevent the return of a crisis of their own. ".


This study was conducted on the initiative of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) in association with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Think Tank Europa and the International Center for Defence and Security. It is based on an opinion poll carried out in September and October 2023 among adult populations (aged 18 and over) in 11 European countries (Germany, Denmark, Spain, Estonia, France, Great Britain, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Switzerland). The total number of respondents was 15,081.

The surveys were conducted by Datapraxis and YouGov in Denmark (1,040; September 26 - October 2), France (2,079; September 26 - October 6), Germany (2,036; September 26 - October 5), Great Britain (2,043; September 26 - October 2), Italy (1,530; September 26 - October 5), Poland (1,069 ; September 26 - October 4), Portugal (1,050; September 26 - October 4), Romania (1,104; September 26 - October 3), Spain (1,014; September 26 - October 3), and Switzerland (1,103; September 26 - October 3); and by Datapraxis and Norstat in Estonia (1,013; September 26 - October 9).

Report source

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Previous article

Weary of war

Next article

Agricultural crisis: a model that's walking on its head

Latest articles from Analyses



Already registered? I'm connecting

Register and read three articles for free. Subscribe to our newsletter to keep up to date with the latest news.

→ Register for free to continue reading.



You have received 3 free articles to discover UP'.

Enjoy unlimited access to our content!

From $1.99 per week only.