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The geography of EU discontent and the regional development trap

Political discontent has been on the rise across Europe. This column draws on the concept of regional 'development traps' to examine the complex relationship between regional economic stagnation and increasing Euroscepticism within the EU. Regions mired in long-term economic decline, with limited economic prospects and a declining standard of living compared to more prosperous regions, are ensnared in a cycle of deep political discontent and are driving the rise in support for Eurosceptic parties. Addressing these economic disparities is essential for reducing Eurosceptic sentiments and ensuring the cohesion of the European project.

Political discontent has been on the rise across Europe. A manifestation of this dissatisfaction is the surge in support for Eurosceptic parties, particularly following the 2008 financial crisis.  Voter disaffection with the EU is evident from the rising shares of support for both 'hard' and 'soft' Eurosceptic parties (Greven 2016, Zakaria 2016, Hopkin 2020, Dijkstra et al. 2020), which has grown from a mere 4% in 2002 to 27% in 2022. Identity crises and cultural conflicts are significant driver of this rise in discontent (Norris and Inglehart 2019, Hopkin 2020). However, economic decline, particularly in regions of Europe previously noted for their prosperity, is further fuelling this trend (Becker et al. 2017, Rodríguez-Pose 2018, Fetzer 2019, Lenzi and Perucca 2021, McKay et al. 2021).

In a new article (Rodríguez-Pose et al. 2024), we build on Diemer et al.'s (2022) concept of 'development traps' to analyse the extent to which economic stagnation at a regional level in the EU is driving discontent and stoking Euroscepticism. We find that Euroscepticism is thriving in places that become stuck in long-term development traps and that the longer the period of stagnation, the stronger the support for parties opposed to European integration.

The rise of Euroscepticism

Two decades ago, Euroscepticism was a marginal phenomenon. It was confined to fringe parties – such as the French National Front, the Danish Progress Party, or the Austrian Freedom Party, among others – that, at the time, struggled to survive at the extremes of the political spectrum. However, Euroscepticism is no longer marginal and many of those parties and new ones are now strong contenders for power. 'Hard' Euroscepticism, denoting outright opposition to EU integration, has regularly garnered almost 15% of the vote in national legislative elections since the mid-2010s (Figure 1). When 'soft' Euroscepticism – involving strong opposition to certain EU policies rather than the outright demise of the EU – is also considered, votes for Eurosceptic parties reached more than 27% of the total in national actions by 2022 (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Votes for parties opposed to EU integration in national parliamentary elections in the EU-27, 2000-2022

Figure 1 Votes for parties opposed to EU integration in national parliamentary elections in the EU-27, 2000-2022

Source: DG REGIO calculations based on the Chapel Hill Expert Survey (CHES) (Jolly et al., 2022) and DG REGIO data collection.
Note: Hard Euroscepticism is defined as a score of 2.5 or lower on the EU-position index on the Chapel Hill Expert Survey (CHES). Soft and hard Euroscepticism is defined as a score of 3.5 or lower on the EU-position index.

The increase in Eurosceptic sentiment has been particularly pronounced since the financial crisis and the subsequent implementation of austerity measures. It has also been in evidence in most EU member states, with the share of overall Eurosceptic vote exceeding 50% of the electorate in Hungary, Italy, Poland, and France (Figure 2). Despite Brexit possibly dampening the allure of hard Euroscepticism, the broad spectrum of Eurosceptic sentiment remains robust, suggesting a persistent and complex challenge to EU cohesion and policymaking (Stubenrauch et al. 2019, Jolly et al. 2022). 

Figure 2 Votes for hard and soft Eurosceptic parties in parliamentary elections, 2018-2022

Figure 2 Votes for hard and soft Eurosceptic parties in parliamentary elections, 2018-2022

The drivers of discontent

The drivers of discontent in Europe are complex. As in most places where discontent has risen in recent times, they intertwine cultural, identity, economic, and demographic factors.

Cultural and identity-driven discontent stems from rapid social changes in Western societies, where increasing diversity and progressive values sometimes clash with the perceptions and adaptability of certain demographic groups. Scholars such as Hochschild (2016) highlight how these transformations can alienate those uncomfortable with new societal norms, leading to a sense of being 'strangers in their own land'.  This sentiment is particularly pronounced in rural areas and regions with older or less-educated populations, where changes in societal values and limited population mobility foster a breeding ground for Euroscepticism (Koeppen et al. 2021, Lee et al. 2018).

The economic drivers of discontent include prolonged stagnation and decline (Rodríguez-Pose 2018, McCann and Ortega-Argilés 2021). The loss of economic dynamism, coupled with demographic challenges, has left many regions across the EU particularly vulnerable to Euroscepticism. In particular, regions that have fallen into a ‘development trap’ have witnessed a rapid expansion of all forms of discontent.

The regional development trap describes areas that fail to keep pace with broader economic trends relative to other regions in their countries and to the EU and themselves in the past. Such stagnation triggers feelings of neglect and disillusionment. Frequently, the inhabitants of these regions not only feel left behind but also resent the stark and growing contrast to their more prosperous pasts and neighbours, fostering fertile ground for discontent and political disaffection (Diemer et al. 2022).

The research we conducted identifies the risk, intensity, and duration of development traps across regions of Europe since 2001. These traps are particularly pronounced in regions throughout France, Italy, and Greece, where they are widespread and enduring, inflicting profound economic scars on a population that increasingly feels neglected (Figure 3).

Figure 3 Length of the development trap (years spent in a trap), 2001-2018

Figure 3 Length of the development trap (years spent in a trap), 2001-2018

The regional development trap and the geography of EU discontent

Our analysis establishes a causal link between the risk, intensity, and duration of regional development traps since the turn of the 21st century and the rise of Euroscepticism. Development trapped regions, on average, have supported hard Eurosceptic parties to a far greater extent than their non-trapped counterparts, though the relationship presents anomalies, with some high-risk areas showing negligible Eurosceptic support and vice versa (Figure 4). This positive relationship is robust to controlling for a range of regional characteristics that includes demographic factors, migration, levels of education of the population, local government quality, and other regional economic indicators. Overall, trapped regions are significantly more likely to vote for hard Eurosceptic options.

Figure 4 Correlation between the trap risk (DT1) and the hard Eurosceptic vote, 2018-2022

Figure 4 Correlation between the trap risk (DT1) and the hard Eurosceptic vote, 2018-2022

The analysis shows that it is not only the presence of a trap but also its depth and duration that significantly influence Eurosceptic voting patterns. Regions experiencing long-term economic decline, where the public perceives a relative decrease in their standard of living compared to other regions, show a stronger propensity to support hard Eurosceptic parties. And the longer a region remains trapped, the stronger the Eurosceptic sentiment becomes. This finding aligns with theories suggesting that perceptions of relative economic decline play a crucial role in political disaffection.

Moreover, when expanding the analysis to cover two electoral cycles, the persistence of the development trap's impact on Eurosceptic voting is evident, emphasising that economic stagnation's influence is not confined to a single election period. Both the risk and intensity of the development trap are crucial for understanding the geography of EU discontent, with regions that have been economically stagnant for longer periods showing considerably higher levels of Eurosceptic voting.


The rise in Eurosceptic voting reflects a broader political shift driven by various social, economic, and demographic factors. But over the long-term, relative local economic decline is fundamental to explain galloping discontent and Euroscepticism across the EU.

Residents of regions trapped in a cycle of low employment, poor productivity, and slow growth, compared to their past performance and that of their country and European peers, are increasingly leaning towards Euroscepticism. This trend is evident across different timeframes, showing the persistent and long-term nature of these effects. The data indicate that the longer and more intense the economic hardships, the greater the susceptibility to Euroscepticism. Discontent arises not only from current economic conditions but also from a prolonged period of comparative decline, where residents perceive a continuous erosion of their quality of life. This ongoing decline contraposes the winners and losers from structural economic changes (Stanig and Colantone 2019) and exacerbates the deterioration of public services and infrastructure, intensifying the feeling of being trapped in 'places that do not matter'. Our analysis also suggests a directional causality from falling into a development trap to the rise of Euroscepticism, not vice versa. Persistent economic stagnation and growing regional inequality are shaping political attitudes and preferences towards European integration, thus endangering the future of the European project.

Our findings call for a significant re-evaluation of economic geography theories and the relationship between economic conditions and political orientations. They advocate for new theoretical frameworks that view political attitudes as both a result and a catalyst of economic conditions. Our study challenges conventional views that primarily attribute political discontent to cultural factors and underscores the need for policies that prevent and address development traps. These policies should include enhancing government quality, fostering innovation, and prioritising education to mitigate Eurosceptic sentiments and promote more cohesive regional development.


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