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Populist push, green wave, establishment in turmoil: a round-up of the EU elections

Frederick Florin, AFP (archive)

Sunday’s election results are set to reshape the EU’s governing coalition, as far-right parties and pro-European greens and liberals each make big gains at the expense of the establishment left and right.

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Parliamentary groups: the end of an era?

Current projections show the two largest parliamentary groups maintaining their positions at the head of the bloc: the European People's Party (EPP) is on track for 180 seats, and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) for 146. Both groups, however, have suffered considerable losses since 2014: 35 seats for EPP and 40 for S&D.

The two parties together are expected to take 326 seats, down from 401 in the present parliament and far short of a majority in the 751-member body.

“The two parties have not crumbled – it’s not a catastrophe – but they alone can no longer set the tone,” says FRANCE 24’s international affairs correspondent Gauthier Rybinski. The end of the grand coalition’s dominance will force a “repoliticisation of the debate” over EU issues, he says.

“This could be a saving grace for the spirit of Europe – turning it from a lukewarm, technocratic trickle into a space of real political engagement,” Rybinski adds.

Coalition negotiations between the parliamentary groups will start Monday. On Tuesday night, European leaders head to Brussels to discuss the composition of the bloc's executive, the European Commission.

The EPP said their lead candidate, German conservative Manfred Weber, should become the new Commission head. But socialists have refused to back him, instead making a case for Dutch liberal Frans Timmermans. If Timmermans gets the job, he will likely push for a progressive coalition comprising the S&D, Green, and centrist ALDE/REM groups, as well as either members of the left-wing GUE/NGL or EPP dissidents.

A far-right tide?

From France to Hungary, anti-immigrant parties scored several important victories on Sunday, but the far right’s results fell short of the continent-wide sweep many analysts had predicted.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche(LREM) party and its opponents alike were determined to make the European elections a referendum on Macron’s presidency so far. Ultimately, this gamble swung in the far right’s favour, with Marine Le Pen's National Rally capturing a record number of votes (5.3 million, up from 4.7 million in 2014) and scraping past LREMto claim victory with 23.3% of votes.

This score marks a slight dip from the National Rally's (then National Front) 24.9% win in 2014 but nevertheless a striking consolidation of the far right’s place in the French political landscape in an election with considerably higher turnout. Macron’s party and Le Pen’s will both enter the new European Parliament with 23 seats.

Across the Channel in the United Kingdom, Nigel Farage’s newly formed, far-right Brexit Party rode a wave of frustration over the country’s faltering EU exit deal to take 29 of the country’s 73 seats. With 31.7% of the vote, Farage’s party was by far the biggest winner of an election that has punished both of Britain’s major parties for their waffling over Brexit. The governing Conservatives suffered the biggest blow, garnering only 8.7% of votes, while Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour took 14.1%.

In Italy, Matteo Salvini’s far-right League party cemented its hold on the electoral landscape with 34.3%, to the detriment of its coalition partner in national government, the Five-Star Movement, which claimed half as many votes (17.1%) to come in third. As in France and the UK, the far-right League made its gains in part by eclipsing a long-standing major party of the right: former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia claimed less than 9% of votes.

But it was in Hungary that the populist, anti-immigrant right saw its most commanding lead. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party was virtually the only party on the continent to win an outright majority, with 52.3% of the vote. (The only other party to do so was the Labour party of Malta.) Fidesz, which is currently suspended from the EPP but has so far declined to ally with Le Pen and Salvini’s parties, could play a key role in shaping the EU’s new governing coalition if Germany’s Weber becomes commissioner.

In Austria, on the other hand, the far-right Freedom Party continues to be wracked by the so-called “Ibiza-gate” scandal, which saw its leader and the country’s Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache resign from both posts after he was caught appearing to offer public contracts in return for campaign help from a fake Russian backer. On Monday, May 20, the scandal resulted in the resignation of all the Freedom Party ministers in government, where they were junior partners of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s People’s Party.

After tumultuous elections, who will lead Europe?

The Freedom Party garnered 17.2% in Sunday’s European vote. But the result has already been overshadowed by national political turmoil, as Kurz lost a no-confidence vote in parliament Monday afternoon, forcing early elections to be called for the autumn. The no-confidence vote against Kurz is set to make him Austria’s shortest-serving chancellor, in a striking sanction of his alliance with the far right.

In both Germany and Spain, far-right parties will make their entry onto the European scene with a smaller share of the vote than they gained in recent national elections. Alternative for Germany (AfD) claimed 11% of the vote, a dip from its breakout showing in the 2017 German national elections. And Spain’s Voxparty saw a significantly lower score than in national parliamentary elections April 28, winning only 6.2% of the European vote Sunday.

Green and liberal gains

Besides the populist push, a second key feature in Sunday’s reshuffling of the European electoral landscape was the defection of voters from the standard-bearers of the left and right toward liberal and green parties. France provides the clearest illustration, not only in the form of Macron’s En Marchebut in a surprise surge for Yannick Jadot’s Europe Ecologie les Verts. The party took third place with 13.5%, a significant increase over their 9.9% vote share in 2013 and over pre-election polling.

In Germany, the Green party nearly doubled its 2014 vote share to take second place with 20.5% of the vote.

The UK’s Green party likewise saw a strong showing with 11.1%. But it was the ardently pro-European Liberal Democrats who most closely mirrored the Brexit Party’s surge on the nationalist right, taking second place in the British polls with 18.6% after campaigning in favor of a second referendum.

In Spain, the centrist Ciudadanos party took third place behind the country’s major parties of the left and right with 12.2%, edging out the left-wing coalition anchored by Podemos (10.1%).

Social democratic bright spots

The Spanish elections Sunday, which included both European and municipal ballots, marked a rare bright spot for the continent’s social democrats. Acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s Socialists (PSOE) won roughly one third of the vote (32.8%), setting the party on track to have the largest contingent in the EU assembly’s Socialist group.

Social democrats also topped the polls in the Netherlands. The result marked a major recovery for the country’s Labour Party (PvdA), which in 2017 faced the most bruising defeat in Dutch electoral history when it fell to less than 6% percent.

Turnout up continent-wide

If Sunday’s elections witnessed a much-heralded Euroskeptic tide, it didn’t take the familiar form of voters staying away from the polls. Instead, the elections saw a spike in participation continent-wide: just over one in two voters (50.9%) showed up to the polls, marking an eight-point increase over 2014 (42.6%).

The last time participation cleared the 50% mark was in 1994, when there were only 12 countries in the EU bloc – less than half as many as today. Even in Slovakia, which has maintained its record for the bloc’s lowest turnout, participation was up almost 10 points.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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