A European quiz question

Here’s a question to test your knowledge of European politics. Consider the two groups of European democracies set out below (all the members of the EU, plus the obvious candidate countries): what’s the feature that distinguishes between them?

Group A Group B
Austria Albania
Belgium (Flanders) Belgium (Wallonia)
Denmark Bulgaria
Estonia Croatia
Finland Cyprus
France Czech Republic
Germany Iceland
Greece Ireland
Hungary Lithuania
Italy Luxembourg
Latvia Macedonia
Netherlands Malta
Slovakia Montenegro
Sweden Norway
Switzerland Poland
United Kingdom (England) Portugal
  United Kingdom (Scotland)


If you’re more graphically inclined, you can see them on the following map: group A is blue, group B is orange.


A couple of things are obvious: the countries in group A are generally bigger, so although there are more countries in group B, roughly twice as many people live in group A. Also the group A countries tend to be wealthier and have more well-established democratic government, although since all three of those things tend to co-vary, causation would be hard to sort out.

Also the group B countries tend to be more on the periphery of the continent, but again there are lots of exceptions both ways.

Give up?

Group A is the countries with a significant far right party – meaning one that recorded at least 7% of the vote in the most recent election, or in recent opinion polls if the election was some time ago. (The threshold is arbitrary, but moving it up or down a couple of points wouldn’t change the picture much.) The countries in group B have no such animal.

There’s room for some argument about what counts as far right, but most of the cases are pretty obvious: France’s National Front, Hungary’s Jobbik, Austria’s Freedom Party, the Sweden Democrats, the Flemish Interest. Among the more doubtful cases, I’ve counted Italy’s Northern League and Britain’s UKIP, but not Norway’s Progress Party or Poland’s Law & Justice.

Again, the precise point where you draw the line doesn’t matter much; you’ve still got an interesting problem about why such parties are flourishing in some countries but not others.

A presence is generally more newsworthy than an absence. We’re used to stories about the march of the far right and the supposedly unstoppable momentum enjoyed by the likes of Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders. Just as no-one reports scientific studies that fail to show some expected correlation, no-one bothers to comment on the fact that last year’s Spanish election, for example, despite an atmosphere of crisis and disillusionment, failed to throw up any political force on the extreme right.

Or consider “new Europe” further east: it’s a major story (and rightly so) when Jobbik gets 20% of the vote and becomes the third largest party in the Hungarian parliament. But who even notices that in neighboring Romania, the Greater Romania Party has only a tenth of that level of support? And if no-one notices, no-one is prompted to ask where such differences come from.

I’m sure lots of explanations could be offered; my own view is that chance is much more important than people usually admit. But for now it would be nice just to see the question recognised.



4 thoughts on “A European quiz question

  1. Hmmmm, Charles, I’m not sure that you can count Poland’s Law & Justice as not far right! And UKIP of course doesn’t have officially far-right policies, though everything we hear about why people vote for it suggests that its supporters are indeed far-ish right. But it is interesting that some countries have managed not to generate them. If you work out a reason, tell us all!


  2. Thanks Jack – you’re the second person to have said I should have counted Law & Justice in the far right camp. I agree it’s borderline, but I just feel that having been an established major party for so long, it’s got a different sort of complexion from the insurgent anti-establishment parties. I’d say the same about FIDESz in Hungary.
    UKIP is another borderline case; I actually used it as a benchmark, counting anything that seemed further to the right than it. It’s got some affinity with Norway’s Progress Party, which is libertarian rather than traditionalist, but I felt UKIP’s more explicit xenophobia just put it over the line.


  3. I can answer for Switzerland (which is not an EU nor candidate country, but still on your list). The far right party there has become successful for two main reasons. One is that until about 20 years ago, politics in Switzerland was the sort of bland and boring stuff that basically no one was interested in. Parties reflected that with little advertising and what was there was very bland. Switzerland has been governed by a grand coalition of the four largest parties which reach across the spectrum for decades and the theme had always been about consensus. The SVP party changed that by copying from the US Republican handbook and diving headlong into all out populism, pushing divisive issues and obstructionism.

    The other reason for their rise is simply money. The SVP budget dwarfs all other parties by a considerable margin. Whenever there is a referendum or election, the country gets plastered in SVP propaganda. Other parties have started catching up somewhat recently but are still a long way behind.


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