European politics is more polarized than ever, and these numbers prove it

The far-right is becoming more influential.
The far-right is becoming more influential.
Image: AP Photo/Jens Meyer
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For the past few years, parties that languished on the fringes of European politics have been winning elections across the continent. In France, the far-right National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, unexpectedly took 25% of the vote in the 2014 European Parliament elections. Last year, the far-left Syriza party in Greece claimed nearly half of the seats in two separate national parliament votes.

A Quartz analysis of EU political representation suggests that these results are part of a broader ideological shift in European politics. Extreme positions are represented more frequently in European governments, especially those positions at the far-right end of the political spectrum.

For this analysis Quartz used data from ParlGov, a database of political parties and election results. The project’s creators, political scientists at the University of Bremen, have merged survey results from multiple sources in order to assign each party a left/right ideology score. That score is a number between zero and 10, where parties closer to zero are further left and parties closer to 10 are further right. Centrist parties, therefore, tend toward five.

The scale of these scores is somewhat arbitrary, but they are useful because they allow ideologies to be compared across countries and over time. By weighting the scores based on the number of seats each party wins in parliament, we can get a sense of how the political balance has changed over time.

The politics of EU members do not move in lockstep. While Britain has sidled right as it contemplates exiting the EU, Greece has run in the other direction, with the far-left Syriza party taking control of the government. Use the selector at the top of the graphic above to examine the ideological trend in every EU country.

On average, most parliaments tend to hover near the center, with occasional surges to the left or right. If we expand the analysis to look at the makeup of the all national parliaments of EU members, we find that this balance has been remarkably stable over time.

However, if instead of looking at the average of the ideology scores, we look at their distribution, we find that in many countries, parties at the edges of the political spectrum (particularly on the right) are securing an increasing number of seats. This is the case both in national parliaments and—especially—in the Brussels-based European Parliament, where low turnout and a lack of relevance to the daily lives of voters has particularly benefitted more extreme party platforms.

We can quantify this shift using a statistical measure called the standard deviation. This evaluates the distribution, or spread, of the ideological scores. A larger standard deviation indicates greater polarization. By this measure, the EU is by far the most polarized it has ever been:

Far-right and nationalist political parties, in particular, have successfully capitalized on concerns about immigration, economics, and the implications of EU membership. It’s hard to say how permanent these shifts are, but for the foreseeable future far-right politics will be a persistent feature of European life.