Normally a sleepy election, this year’s European Parliament elections feature higher turnout than seen in years, hitting 51 percent in most states. On the one hand, right-wing eurosceptics flocked to the polls to create a bloc that might hobble the government from within; on the other hand, citizens who wish to keep engaged with the project and counter those very eurosceptic forces flocked to vote to counter them.
As polls closed on May 26th, it became clear that nationalists and eurosceptics wanting to chip away at the European project, did indeed make their presence felt, although they failed to secure their hoped-for landslide, achieving 25 percent of the 751 seats – a jump of 40 per cent. It’s certainly a sizable increase, but it is by no means a governing coalition. Overall, mainstream and centrist parties faced decline and fragmentation, and for the first time in 40 years, the centre-right and centre-left will no longer control a majority in Parliament. However, centrist Liberals, Greens, and populists – overall – jointly gained ground, with pro-European mainstream parties having won two-thirds of the seats.
The Future of the Bloc
In the coming weeks, the European Parliament will face rounds of bargaining over who will run EU institutions. It is likely that the broadly pro-EU parties will form a broad coalition to secure their mandate. The centre-right and centre-left parties will likely have to work together, in a coalition with the Liberals, to create a sustainable majority. This in turn will impact the bloc’s ability to make decisions on everything, from international trade and climate change, across to migration.
“We are facing a shrinking centre”, said Manfred Weber, the German lead candidate of the EPP, the European People’s Party. “So what I would ask us to do to is to join our forces to work together from now.”
While eurosceptics have increased their share in Parliament, these disparate nationalist groups also have competing interests, making it difficult for them to wield the power they do have – though they will likely be able to derail some of the plans of pro-European parties, especially on issues like immigration and budget. In an increasingly fractured political landscape, the battle for what the EU’s future looks like, will continue.
Mark Leonard, the European Council on Foreign Relations director, said that “contrary to predictions, there has been no continent-wide shift to far-right or anti-European parties”. But neither is it possible for Parliament to continue with the status quo. “The composition of the new Parliament will be weighed in favour of pro-Europeans, but it does not mean that they have a mandate for ‘more of the same’.”
“Defying the doomsayers once again, Europe continues to muddle through reasonably well”, said Holger Schmieding, chief economist of Berenberg, a German bank. “Previous gains for populist parties at the national level, as well as the challenges of Brexit, Trump, China and Russia, have elicited some counter-reaction of the pro-European mainstream.” he said. He called it part of a “largely healthy debate about the future of European integration”.
The leaders of the two largest mainstream parties in the European Parliament have ruled out working with the far-right. Manfred Weber said Sunday night that “from now on, those who want to have a strong European Union have to join forces”, adding that his group – the centre-right European People’s Party – would not cooperate “with any party that doesn’t believe in the future of the European Union”.
“The big thing is that the gains for the extremists were not very substantial”, Guntram Wolff, head of the Bruegel economics think tank in Brussels, told Reuters.
“The electorate is crying out for change and is therefore volatile — preferring to back new insurgents rather than the status quo parties that have been around for decades,” said Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The fear of a far-right takeover of the European Parliament has mobilised Europe’s pro-European forces, resulting in a huge surge in turnout, and in support for Green and Liberal parties throughout Europe.”
It is far more likely that the limited electoral success of eurosceptic parties will be felt less in the EU Parliament, and much more in the parties’ respective home countries. In France, Italy, Germany, and Poland, these same parties are threatening to further disrupt the traditional party systems and gain more power, and have been promoting the EU election results as a litmus test of their respective platforms.
In some states, eurosceptic parties gained ground, eating away at the dominance of traditional and mainstream parties. But in other states, the opposite was true. And in states where traditionalist parties maintained their edge, it was not without a fight.
In France, the fact that Marine Le Pen’s National Front pulled ahead – even by only a narrow margin – of Macron’s party, Renaissance, indicates potentially rough waters ahead in France. Macron has long positioned himself as a champion of the European project against those who wish to weaken it. That small margin of victory is enough to symbolically weaken Macron’s grip on government.
While the National Front earned 24 percent as opposed to Renaissance’s 22 percent, coming in third were the French Greens – cementing a liberal majority.
Le Pen called the result “a vote for France, and for the people”. Macron’s prime minister, Édouard Philippe, conceded defeat, and said that he received “these results with humility”, and that “political leaders need to hear the message”, and that it was “a time for action”.
“There is, of course, some disappointment”, said an Elysee official. “But the score is absolutely honourable compared to how incumbents did in previous European elections. There was no sanction.” Similarly, an official at Macron’s office said that “(The president’s) objective is to intensify Act II of his presidency at the national level, so there is no change in policy to be expected. Our goal is for the French to feel the change. We already have positive signals on unemployment and spending power.”
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats party lost 7 percentage points, while retaining their first-place position. And while the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), was far behind in third place, they also surged four points to 11 percent. But the Greens doubled their vote, finishing second at 21 percent, and pulling ahead of the Social Democrats.
Meanwhile, two years after the Brexit referendum, and two months after Brexit was set to happen, voters went to the polls, only to have Nigel Farage’s Brexit party on track for the biggest wins of the election, while both Labour and Conservatives suffered losses. However, anti-Brexit parties in total took 40 percent of the vote, while Brexit party and UKIP together, took 35 percent. And while Farage doesn’t intend for Britain to keep those very MEP seats for long, the fate of Brexit remains up in the air, with a second referendum on the issue potentially on the horizon. Similarly, Poland’s Law and Justice party (PiS) also narrowly came out ahead, widely seen as vindication for the party’s eurosceptic and anti-immigration platform.
In Italy, Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s right-wing, nationalist League party also came out on top, with about 30 percent of the vote – a far cry from the mere 6 per cent his party was polling five years previously. Salvini said that “Europe is changing”, and drew parallels between the League’s success and that of other nationalists across the continent. “Thank you Italy. We will use your trust well. The first party in Italy will change Europe”, he said in a Facebook video. In Italy, this election was seen as a test of the anti-establishment government, which has been slowly losing popularity over the past year, as Salvini’s League grows more popular against their weakening coalition partner, the Five Star Movement.
In Spain, on the other hand, the Socialists won both in Spain’s national elections and in the European Parliament. Sanchez’ PSOE party topped the European election and is on course to have the largest contingent in the EU assembly’s Socialist group. The European Parliament election “confirmed that the Socialists are, by far, the first political force in Spain”, said Sanchez at a news conference, mentioning his “pride” over the EU result.
Sanchez’s Socialist party won twenty seats in the European Parliament, followed by PP with twelve seats, Ciudadanos with seven, and far-right Vox with three. Spain has long had diminished effects in Brussels, being dragged down with the economic crisis. The county has also preferred to focus on domestic issues, but with its economic revival and the chaos caused by Brexit, Spain might start having increased impact in the EU government, including top foreign policy posts, or the vice presidency of the European Commission.
“Spain is going to fight to have a position according to our new weight in Europe”, a government source told Reuters, ahead of what looks to be a tough battle for the EU’s most coveted senior jobs – and in an increasingly fragmented political landscape.
In Portugal too, Prime Minister António Costa’s Socialist party came out comfortably ahead – marking the first time in twenty years that a sitting government has also won in the European elections. This is likely to cement his win when he is up for re-election this October. The right-wing Portuguese party, however, had its worst-ever showing.
In Cyprus, members of both ruling party DISY and opposition communist party Akel made it into the European Parliament, including Niyazi Kizilyurek, who teaches at the University of Cyprus’ Turkish and Middle Eastern Studies Department. Kizilyurek is the first Turkish-Cypriot ever to represent Cyprus in the EU government. Akel leader Andros Kyprianou, said Kizilyurek’s election sends a strong message to other EU nations, that Cypriots want an end to the divided nature of their island, and are seeking EU aid to further peace efforts. Far-right party Elam did not succeed in electing an MEP, though they did increase their share of the votes.
Labour swept the results in Malta, outperforming the Nationalist party with 55 percent of the vote. Labour leader and Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, said that it was the “largest majority in Malta’s history”. But in Greece, Prime Minister Tsipras’ leftist Syriza party took a hit, losing out to the opposition centre-right New Democracy party – and prompting him to call for snap elections as early as June 30th.
Both within each state, and in Europe at large, it is clear to see that the political landscape is a fractured one. While the far-right parties haven’t taken over, and the Eurosceptic parties are far from a majority, neither are traditional nor mainstream parties particularly safe. The ongoing struggle between these very different political groups are likely to continue for years to come. The election was just the beginning.