The pace of urbanisation in CEE will have important political consequences

The pace of urbanisation in CEE will have important political consequences

30. 01. 2023 – Lomond

Back in 2019, the European Strategy and Policy Analysis System (ESPAS) published a report entitled ‘Global Trends to 2030: Challenges and Choices for Europe’. It highlighted seven ‘mega-trends’, one of which was urbanisation. 

Urbanisation has profound consequences for many areas of policy-making, of course, and its impact on political attitudes has also become a big area of academic research.

For example, a 2021 study from the University of Cambridge’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy and its Land Economy Department looked at social and political attitudes in 30 European countries between 2002 and 2018. It concluded that “there is a strong and significant divide between the political outlooks of urban and rural Europe. But this divergence is not best seen in binary terms, and is better understood as a gradient running from inner cities to metropolitan suburbs, towns and the countryside.” More specifically, “compared to dwellers in inner urban cores, people living in suburbs, towns and rural areas are more likely to be conservative in their orientation, dissatisfied with the functioning of democracy in their country, and less likely to trust the political system, even though they are strikingly more likely to participate in it, especially by voting.”

In the same year, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre published a report which agreed that “the empirical analysis detects some signs of a rural-urban divide in the political attitudes and behaviour of Europeans”, and that “in a few Member States, parties favouring EU integration and liberal immigration policies tended to receive a larger share of votes in urban rather than rural areas”.

Other research has indicated a link between a sluggish economy and higher anti-EU sentiment in rural areas, but not in cities, towns and suburbs.

With all of that in mind, it’s interesting to consider the pace of urbanisation in different EU countries to assess the extent to which it is likely to impact the political landscape. Urbanisation isn’t actually an easy thing to measure, but one method is to calculate the difference between the percentage of people living in predominantly urban regions and the growth / decline of the population as a whole over a certain period of time. If you run those numbers for 2014-2021, for example, it suggests that urbanisation is happening most quickly in parts of Central & Eastern Europe:

We know one other important thing about the urbanisation trend in the countries at the top of this  list: people are flocking to the capital cities rather than other urban areas. Indeed, there are six EU member states where, since 2014, the growth rate in the region around the capital has been more than 5% higher than the country as a whole – and it matches exactly with the six countries where the overall urbanisation trend is fastest: Slovakia (the Slovak population is up 0.8% over the last seven years, but the Bratislava region has grown 9.5% in the same period), Lithuania (the gap is 8.0%), Croatia (6.5%), Estonia (6.1%), Finland (5.9%) and the Czech Republic (5.6%).

How much will this matter politically in CEE?

It’s important to acknowledge that the Cambridge University study mentioned above argued that “attitudinal heterogeneity along the urban/rural continuum is particularly pronounced across all the countries of Western Europe. By contrast EU13 Members [i.e. the CEE member states which joined the EU from 2004] show significantly less marked differences.”

However, that study didn’t look specifically at attitudes between capital cities and the rest of the country, and there is plenty of evidence – both empirical and anecdotal – that many capital cities are ‘bubbles’ politically.

And that being the case, the urbanisation trend in these countries will, surely, have very significant political consequences long-term.