The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The urban-rural divide that bolstered Trump isn’t just an American thing; it’s prevalent in Europe, too

Tilbury, an economically deprived dockside town on the outskirts of London, voted to leave the European Union with a majority of more than 70 percent. (Shannon Jensen Wedgwood for The Washington Post)

LONDON — What shaped European politics over the past two years might appear to some like a revolution of rural Europe rising up against the establishment and economic winners.

Support for Britain leaving the European Union was highest in rural areas in the June referendum.

It is also “rural France” that might empower far-right politician Marine Le Pen next year.

In Germany, the urban establishment underestimated the backlash the recent influx of refugees would provoke in less densely populated areas.

In northern Europe's biggest countries, the rural-urban divide appears to have shaped Europe in 2016. There is no reason to assume that 2017 will be any different. The divide could affect northern Europe to a much greater extent than southern Europe, however, where cities rather than rural areas are increasingly the source of frustration.

Rural northern Europe has been in crisis for years, as younger and educated men and women have moved to cities to find employment.

Even in federal republics like Germany, which lack the dominance of one single capital city, an urban-rural disconnect is increasingly visible. Whereas Berlin has attracted foreigners and Germans alike, its surrounding areas have seen a rapid demographic change. Supermarkets have closed, and bus connections were canceled as a result. It is a pattern which can be observed all over Europe at the moment.

To those who have stayed in rural areas, a feeling of being left behind has replaced the pride of having grown up outside big cities and away from all the problems that are associated with them.

That sense of abandonment — the same sentiment that won over Midwest voters to support Donald Trump — overwhelmed the advice of most of Britain's economic experts and nearly all of the country's leading politicians during this year's European Union referendum.

This is why towns such as Tilbury, England, voted overwhelmingly for Britain to leave the 28-nation bloc. But when I visited Tilbury three days after the referendum in June, the initial excitement had mostly disappeared. By that time, it had already made room for worries about what is next for an increasingly divided Britain.

What residents in Tilbury told me reflected what I had heard in France and Germany, as well. Once a vibrant port town in southeastern England, mass layoffs destroyed much of its glory in the 1970s and ’80s and turned it into one of the country's poorest places — 12,000 residents still live here, but not all have stayed voluntarily.

In official statistics, Tilbury is counted as an urban district. But in reality, many of its residents feel part of Britain's rural areas, far removed from the prosperous cities and larger towns. And worse, with little or no savings to finance a move, they are trapped.

One of the residents I met who had tried to leave the town was Antony Kerin, 38, an unemployed father. He said he had been trying to move to public housing in a different city but remained on a long waiting list.

“They’re making us stay here to rot,” said Kerin, referring to county officials and the British government.

And as these native Britons feel trapped with no economic future, they see images of an increasingly diverse population in the cities. To many Brexit supporters, concerns over an influx of immigrants were among the reasons they voted to leave the E.U.

In Germany, similar feelings have created a different kind of backlash: anti-immigration protests and anti-refugee attacks. Economically distressed eastern Germany has seen the vast majority of those attacks. That region, an area which consists of five states excluding Berlin, accounts for only about 15 percent of the German population. Yet the majority of anti-immigrant attacks took place in the country's east in 2015.

Although a third of all Germans live in rural areas, initiatives to welcome immigrants were mostly limited to urban centers.

Germany's demographic change has hit the country's east particularly, with skilled workers either moving into cities nearby or into western German urban areas. It is a downward spiral.

When Chancellor Angela Merkel urged the country to take in refugees last year, many rural residents asked: “What has she ever done for us?” The attacks on immigrants which ensued will ultimately only speed up the demise of their villages and small towns: With a declining population and anxiety among immigrants to move there, there is little hope for revitalization.

Elsewhere, however, the divide is less obvious.

Where are the happiest Europeans? Not in big cities, survey says.

In a recent survey, E.U. researchers asked residents of 75 major cities in Europe how satisfied they were. The poll showed a striking south-north divide, with citizens in Spain, Greece or Italy being particularly unsatisfied. Belgium and parts of France appeared to be the exception in northern Europe, with similar levels of urban discontent than in the south.

Whereas in some of the biggest and wealthiest European countries cities appear to offer perspectives to younger and educated citizens, urban areas pose major challenges in poorer E.U. nations, it appears.

A particular spotlight was put on Belgium in 2016, as the nation struggled to react to the role of residents in several Brussels neighborhoods in the planning of major terrorist attacks. Two communities stood out in particular: Molenbeek and Schaerbeek.

Both communities perform below average in terms of education and poverty levels, compared with other districts.

Although socioeconomic factors alone cannot explain why young people decide to join militant groups such as the Islamic State, the recent focus on districts such as Molenbeek has raised uncomfortable questions for city officials across the continent.

Whereas it is the rural-urban divide which is a driving force behind politics in nations such as France, Germany and Britain at the moment, a similar and yet very different phenomenon is causing divides within cities in much of Europe, particularly in the south.

What unites residents of suburbs in Madrid and rural citizens in eastern Germany is the feeling of being left behind by their political leaders. This year has proved that it is a more powerful sentiment than many established politicians thought it could be.

Many far-right parties in Europe are celebrating the presidential victory of Donald J. Trump. (Video: Jason Aldag, Ishaan Tharoor/The Washington Post)

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