EU elections will be a litmus test for polarization – but what happens next?

June 7, 2024
A row of EU flags against a skyline with blue skies

A time of heightened polarization and challenges to global cooperation, the results of the EU elections will provide insight into how EU citizens feel about the world around them.

Photo: Unsplash/Alexandre Lallemand

Our world is fractured. But the depth of the divides carved into the fabric of our societies, and the full consequences of ‘us versus them’ politics, are still emerging. Nonetheless, commentaries around the upcoming EU elections here in Brussels is brimming with speculation about what they will reveal.  

Will a backlash against collective climate action threaten prospects for a better future? Is rising nationalism undermining much needed international cooperation? Could additional cuts to overseas development result in more forced migration, less trust, more wars? 

Elections alone cannot reveal any of these futures to us. But the results will be a litmus test for how societies, both citizens and governments, are responding to increasing polarization. 

Polarization is endemic across Europe, and indeed the wider world. It is embedded in our economies, our communities and our politics. It is also one of the defining challenges of our time as it is blocking the collective efforts needed to fight the global, interlinked crises we face. Climate change, poverty, conflicts and pandemics. Cooperation, across and within countries, is fundamental to addressing them all. 

The 20 year partnership between the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the European Union (EU) offers a blueprint for how cooperation can drive positive change. Take for example the 120 countries that have enhanced their national climate pledges or the support for hundreds of small businesses in war-affected Ukrainian communities, that are now helping keep the economy afloat. Or the development of the most comprehensive arms control mechanism in the Southeastern Europe region, tackling the illicit possession, misuse and trafficking of small arms and light weapons in the Western Balkans.  

Suggestions that the EU elections will determine our collective future may seem hyperbolic but they can give an insight into how EU citizens feel about the world around them. 

Some of this we know. Polarization has been insidiously rising since 2011 and is now increasing in two thirds of countries globally. Some, we see unfolding in the news. Contested elections, silencing of minorities, civil unrest, assassination attempts. 

What is particularly perplexing is that this polarization is occurring in a hyperconnected world. Of the estimated 400 million who may vote in the EU elections, none live in a country – or region -that is self-sufficient. Every region in the world relies on imports from other regions for at least 25 percent of its major goods and services

Why then, are we seeing surges in support for movements that are hostile to global cooperation politics? It is no coincidence that the billions of people who can vote this year, in the EU elections and beyond, live in a vastly unequal world. The gap between rich and poor countries, which had steadily shrunk until 2020, is widening again. Within countries, communities and even households, inequalities are entrenched. 

And when inequality rises, trust in government falls. Globally, one in two people feel that they are not in control of their lives and two out of three people don’t think their voice is heard in the political system. The result is millions of people feeling disenfranchised and impatient for change. The perfect breeding ground for populist movements to thrive.  

But if polarization is the problem, investing in development is the solution.  This includes building effective governance systems and engaging people throughout the entire electoral cycle, from peaceful, credible and inclusive elections to ensuring mechanisms to hold power to account. A significant issue in 2024 as half of the world’s population, across 72 countries, could head to the polls.  

As two of the largest electoral assistance providers globally, UNDP and the EU have worked with over 100 countries and provide a range of support, including helping to strengthen democratic institutions such as parliaments, judiciaries, and electoral bodies. From advancing the political participation of women and youth to ensuring transparency and challenging mis- and dis-information; this is how we determine our collective future. Recognising a better world is one shaped by inclusivity and built on cooperation.  

Globally, 3 billion people report feeling worried today, an increase of 687 million people over the last decade. What is worrying EU citizens will be better understood after the upcoming elections. But what happens next is a burning question. This is when legislations will be proposed, debates will be had and the course for the future will be set. It will require continued engagement from citizens, governments, the UN, civil society organizations and the media - beyond the heated moment of elections. The EU elections can show us how voters feel about the world today, but our collective commitment to international cooperation must be fought for every day. We do not need elections to tell us that when polarization wins, humanity loses.