As Brussels counts the final votes in last weekend’s European elections, a picture is emerging of a fractured Europe, with far-right populists, liberals, and Greens surging in popularity, leaving centrist pro-European parties without a majority of seats in the Parliament.
Far-right leaders across the continent, including the U.K.’s Nigel Farage, Italy’s Matteo Salvini and France’s Marine Le Pen, delivered significant victories in their home countries but were unable to deliver the predicted Europe-wide surge that would have seen anti-EU lawmakers wrest significant control from the mainstream parties.
The center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left Social Democrats will remain the two leading blocs in Brussels. But after losing their majority, they will need to build a coalition with the Greens and the liberal ALDE bloc.
"You have a contradictory trend: Nationalists are up, but so are Greens and liberals."
“You have a contradictory trend: Nationalists are up, but so are Greens and liberals,” Quentin Peel, associate fellow at the Europe Programme at London-based think tank Chatham House, told VICE News. “It is going to be a fragmented European Parliament and one that will find it more difficult to come out with a clear political direction.”
The other significant trend over the weekend was increased turnout. An average of 51 percent of people voted, up 10 percent from the elections five years ago. Experts say this is a reaction to the rise of populist candidates and a growing awareness of the climate change crisis.
Europe by the numbers
The EPP is on course to retain its No. 1 position in the Parliament with 179 of the 751 seats, but this is down sharply from the 216 it won in the most recent European elections, in 2014. The Socialists and Democrats party (S&D) has also lost a significant number of seats: It’s projected to win 150, compared to the 185 it won five years ago.
This means the two main groups will need to reach out to other pro-European groups to maintain a “cordon sanitaire,” a barrier that excludes any anti-EU lawmakers from the decision-making process.
Chief among these groups will be the liberal ALDE alliance, which includes the party of French President Emmanuel Macron and is on course to win 107 seats, an increase of 38 over its results in 2014. Green Party candidates have also made strong gains, winning 70 seats, 18 more than they won in 2014.
Winners and Losers
- Germany: Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) both performed poorly, while the Greens doubled their share of the vote.
- Italy: Matteo Salvini, deputy prime minister and head of the populist League Party, delivered over 30 percent of the vote, but those gains won’t be enough to fulfill his promise that his victory would help change the rules in Brussels.
- Holland: Geert Wilder’s far-right Freedom Party, which was expected to form part of the populist surge, lost all four of its seats, trailing behind the Party for the Animals and a seniors-focused party (50Plus), each winning one seat.
- Spain: The ruling Socialist party (PSOE) took 20 seats while the far-right Vox party won just three, or 6.2 percent of the vote. Catalonia's former separatist president Carles Puigdemont, who fled Spain in 2017 after a failed secession bid, won a seat in the European parliament, but it is unclear if he will be able to take it up.
- France: Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (formerly the National Front) is expected to narrowly edge out Macron, but her party’s share of the vote has actually dropped since the 2014 elections.
- U.K.: Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party topped the poll with 30 percent of the vote, and the ruling Conservative Party saw their share of the vote almost completely wiped out. The pro-EU Liberal Democrats saw a huge boost in their support, taking second place.
- Greece: Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, of the Syriza party, called a snap election Sunday night after the conservative New Democracy party won over a third of the and his own party took just 20 percent.
What does this mean for the EU?
The Parliament will no longer be dominated by a “grand coalition” of the EPP and S&D, and with gains for both the liberals and nationalists, the new Parliament will operate very differently.
"The common thread is that people voted for change, that is why they opted for liberal and green parties, often instead of the mainstream parties,” Pawel Zerka, program coordinator of the European Power program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told VICE News. “Therefore, pro-Europeans need to show they have listened to this message from the voters.”
While Italy’s Salvini and his fellow populist party leaders had been hoping to win around 30 percent of the seats and therefore gain some power in Brussels, results suggest they'll win more like 23 percent of the seats.
"That is 23 percent of the European Parliament essentially representing people who are hostile to the idea of Europe,” Peel said.
The question now is whether the disparate group of nationalists can form a bloc to effect change within the Parliament. Peel notes that each party’s inherent self-interest may prevent this from happening.
"I think [the populists] will find it quite difficult to put together a coherent position in the European Parliament, precisely because of what they are — they are nationalists,” Peel said. “Each one of those parties is driven primarily by the national interest."
Cover: French President Emmanuel Macron smiles to a supporter after voting in the European parliamentary elections in Le Touquet, northern France, Sunday, May 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Kamil Zihnioglu)