Thursday

17th Oct 2019

Populists' EU breakthrough fails, greens and liberals gain

  • Millions of voters turned out across Europe, pushing the turn out over 50 percent for the first time in decades (Photo: European Parliament)

Mainstream parties suffered losses at the European election on Sunday (26 May), which saw a high turnout in most EU member states, ushering in massive wins for the Greens, but a lower than expected surge in right-wing populist parties.

Estimated overall turnout in the EU-27 member states at 51 percent compared to 42.6 percent in 2014, ending a 40-year downward trend in Europe of attracting less and less voter interest.

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After a decade of crises with the EU at its core, whether the euro crisis, the migration crisis, or a rise of nationalism attacking a perceived Brussels elite, voters across EU countries went to the polls in numbers not seen since the European Parliament was first elected directly in 1979.

The European Parliament was quick to interpret the high turnout as support for the lead candidate system, pushed by the parliament, that would require national leaders to pick the winning party coalition's top candidate as the next EU commission president to replace Jean-Claude Juncker.

However, voters seemed to have rejected more of the same and created a new parliament that will be more fragmented, yet still with a mostly pro-EU majority.

EPP down

The centre-right European People's Party (EPP), which has dominated EU politics for the last decade - currently giving all the presidents of the three main EU institutions - has performed badly.

It still remains the largest group with 179 MEPs, down from 216, in the 751-seat European Parliament, according to the EP's own projection.

It remains to be seen where all this leaves EPP's lead candidate for the EU commission presidency, Manfred Weber, who hoped to forge an alliance with centrist parties to clinch the top job.

Weber late on Sunday night called for a coalition with the Socialists, liberals and the greens.

Centre-right parties in France and Spain lost heavily, and German chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats have lost some seats too, although with 29 MEPs (down from 34) they are likely to remain the biggest national party in the parliament.

An EPP-led coalition seemed no longer a given, as Socialist parliament leader Udo Bullman pushed for a "progressive" alliance in Europe based fighting poverty and climate change.

"This [coalition] is not their [EPP] monopoly, we need a new alliance," Bullman said, whose group is expected to have 150 MEPs in parliament.

He scolded the EPP for embracing such nationalist leaders as Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban, whose party was suspended, but remains in the centre-right family.

Orban has heavily hinted that he would leave the EPP after the elections, which would strip the centre-right of another 13 seats.

'Green Wave'

The Greens celebrated early with a massive result from Germany, where Die Gruene became the second-largest party with over 20 percent of the votes, pushing the Social Democrats, Merkel's junior government coalition partners, into a humiliating third place.

The Greens have also done well in France, Ireland, Belgium too, and are set to become the fourth-largest party in the parliament, positioning their expected 67 MEPs (up from 52) as possible kingmakers.

"This is all about content," Green lead candidate, the German Ska Keller said on Sunday night about the conditions of the Greens signing up to any coalition, pointing to climate, social justice and civil liberties as key principles.

Liberals have also staged some impressive results, with a possible 107 MEPs in the new parliament.

The boost in numbers is partly down to French president Emmanuel Macron's En Marche party joining the alliance, with Romania's USR-PLUS party, led by ex-commissioner and former prime minister Dacian Ciolos, also joining.

"Europe is back and Europe is popular," liberal group leader and lead candidate Guy Verhofstadt claimed on Sunday night, adding that any "solid, robust", pro-EU majority would need the liberals' backing.

Verhofstadt emphasised that for the first time in 40 years, the centre-right and the centre-left cannot form a majority only among them, making the liberals indispensable.

In France, Macron's En Marche came second with 22.4 percent of the votes to far-right leader Marine Le Pen's National Rally with 23.6 percent, in a rematch of their presidential duel in 2017.

Populists make gains

While Le Pen won France, she failed to match her 2014 result of 25 percent.

While populists and nationalists had a strong showing in Britain, where Nigel Farage's new Brexit Party came in first place nationally, and could be one of the biggest parties in Brussels. In Italy, where far-right leader and interior minister Matteo Salvini has led a campaign against the 'Brussels elite', they failed to make a splash in the new parliament.

Their overall number of right-wing, nationalist, anti-EU MEPs will surge to 108 from 78, with more moderate eurosceptic conservatives adding another 61 MEPs to the lot.

Their increased number could make legislating more difficult in the parliament, but ultimately fall below some earlier predictions of dominating one-third of the EU parliament.

National EU leaders who have been deeply reluctant to embrace the lead candidate system, and have been vary of backing Weber, are gathering in Brussels on Tuesday (28 May) evening to have a first talks on the results, a few hours after parliament group leaders will have met to discuss the results.

EUobserved

Jubilant Greens in party mood after first EP projection

A party like atmosphere has seized the Greens as a packed room of people discuss around food and drinks. Elsewhere, the centre-right EPP appear sombre, as they huddle around their computers behind closed doors.

Timmermans calls for left-wing coalition at debate

The centre-right's Manfred Weber got most of the heat at the EU Commission presidential candidates' final debate before the European elections, while Frans Timmermans reached out to a possible coalition partners - piling more pressure on Weber's EPP.

Analysis

Key takeaways from the European elections

European voters upset the status quo in the new European Parliament, breaking the monopoly of the mainstream centre-right and centre-left. Here are the key points from the 2019 vote.

Opinion

EU elections: populists gained votes - but lost initiative

A clear majority, including among populist parties, agree that the EU has added value. For the pro-EU forces, it is time to clarify and consolidate our vision, without ignoring the populists' election results.

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