Over four days last week, 28 European countries elected their representatives to the European Union (EU) at a time when populism, euro-scepticism, Brexit and escalating trade wars loomed over the EU elections.
With counting still underway, the full picture from the world’s biggest multinational vote is yet to emerge. But provisional results have yielded trends suggesting that mainstream centrist parties no longer enjoy a majority and must rely on new and mostly extremist parties to frame EU policy in the future.
At the same time, right-wing populist leaders have failed to substantially increase their vote share in the European Parliament. The predicted surge in support for far-right populist parties did not materialise, reported CNN, except in countries like the UK where Brexit Party took a lion’s share of the votes, and France where gilets jaunes protests rocked the sentiment against mainstream parties.
Nationalist parties also took home impressive results in Italy, Belgium, Hungary and Poland, so it’s not as if far-right parties haven’t gained.
But liberals and the Greens have also made healthy inroads.
History and significance
The European Parliament is the only EU institution whose members are elected through a direct popular vote. Members of the European Parliament are responsible for electing the President of the European Commission—the EU executive body—and approving the laws that govern the Union.
The Parliament’s 751 seats are distributed among member states based on population. Voters in each country cast ballots for national parties. Those parties are affiliated with parties at the European level, which in turn are represented in the Parliament through various political groups. The group with the most seats has the best chance of influencing the policy direction of the European Commission.
Since 1999, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and its predecessors have held the most seats.
Shifting balance of power
So it speaks volumes when the Grand Coalition, of which the EPP is a central part, and which holds the top three jobs in the EU, won the most seats this year, but no longer enjoys a combined majority.
Besides the EPP, the group also comprises the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D); both have lost more than 30 seats each winning 23.7% of the total votes. The EPP has secured 180 votes, while S&D won 146 of the 751 seats.
One of the key figures in the S&D is Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel is part of the EPP.
While Spain’s Socialist party recorded another strong performance (32.84%) following a general election win in late April, its centre-right parties also made handsome gains suggesting that Spain too has bucked the general European trend towards political extremes.
Similarly, in Germany, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) were ahead of their nearest opponent the Greens and Social Democratic Party by about 10 percentage points. But the performance of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), not far behind SDP, has proved that their vote share is likely to increase in future.
New emergent blocs to play kingmakers
A big reason for the Grand Coalition failing to retain its majority is a new centrist-liberal group which won 32 (the highest number of new) seats. It includes the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and French President Macron’s Republique en Marche party (ER).
Interestingly, Macron lost narrowly in his own country to Marine Le Pen’s right-wing National Rally (NR) that has been trying to hijack the anti-fuel tax Yellow Vests movement as an anti-establishment moment in France’s history.
Yet, Le Pen’s vote share was a slight decrease compared to 2014, when her Front National party gained 24.86% of the vote.
Pen along with Italy’s Matteo Salvini is supposedly trying to round up all right-wing populist leaders and form an anti-EU bloc, looking to play an important role in nominating officials for key EU positions and framing key policies especially in trade and immigration.
Meanwhile, Salvini’s League defeated Five Star Movement (M5S), its ally in Italy’s coalition government, by double the margin and reversing the balance of power the two held when they first entered into a coalition last year. The Social Democrats (PD) have re-emerged as the main opposition force with 22.7% of the votes, after a resounding defeat in the general election a year ago.
The rise of liberal and Greens
The squeeze on major parties was visible in the UK, where too voters opted for clearer Brexit messages. But while hard Brexit groups gained, the big winners, according to Financial Times, were anti-Brexit parties whose share doubled.
Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party secured 32 percent of the vote and 29 seats, followed by the Liberal Democrats on 20 percent and 16 seats, Labour on 14 percent and 10, and the Greens on 12 percent and 7 seats, while Conservatives slipped to the fifth betraying growing resentment against traditional UK parties. It’s also worth noting that the Brexit Party took most of its seats from the UK Independence Party, Farage’s previous political vehicle.
The Greens have made overall huge gains, particularly in northern Europe with an impressive performance in Germany, France, Ireland Finland, the UK, and the Netherlands — where young people have staged marches calling for political action over climate change. The Green Party and its branches have won 69 total seats that includes 18 extra seats across the continent.
These new parties are set to become a force to be reckoned with in the new parliament and are being seen as the kingmakers for any majority.
In Denmark, the newly formed Forum for Democracy, led by 36-year-old Thierry Baudet, won only three seats. It was expected to win a lot more, especially after topping Danish provincial elections earlier this year. Billed as the main contender to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, FfD now lags in fifth place.
The Danish People’s Party also suffered a heavy defeat compared to its performance in the last EP election in 2014, when it took more than one-quarter of the vote. This year, it slid to just 10.7 percent with just one seat in the ECR group.
In the European Parliament, both parties are part of the Eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group.
Rutte’s Liberal Party was followed by Social Democratic Party and Socialist People’s Party in terms of vote share.
The Austrian Freedom Party (FPO), founded by neo-Nazis and friendly to Russia, only managed to come third with 17 percent of the vote and three seats in the ECR group, after their was campaign marred by the “Ibiza-gate”.
The scandal has rocked Austria, dealing a blow to the growing clout of nationalist, anti-immigrant parties in Europe. FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache was forced to resign as Austria’s vice chancellor last week after he was filmed offering lucrative government contracts in exchange for campaign support to a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch. He may also face criminal charges.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was also forced to resign on Monday after a no-confidence vote; additionally, Interior Minister Herbert Kickl was fired. New elections await in Septemeber.
Another nation in a servile relation with Moscow is Hungary.
Viktor Orban, the country’s far-right nationalist prime minister, scored a huge win in the EP elections, after his Fidesz party secured 52.33% of the votes, thrice that of second-most popular party – left-wing Democratic Coalition.
Geert Wilders of the far-right Party for Freedom had attended Salvini’s rally in Milan earlier this May but failed to win where Le Pen and Orban succeeded. PfF didn’t reach the electoral threshold and will have no seats in the new parliament.
Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said he would call a snap election after a poor performance for his party at European and local elections. The opposition conservative party “New Democracy” won 33.25% of the vote, with a lead over the governing Coalition of the Radical Left “Syriza”, currently at 23.74%.
Romania’s de-facto leader and Social Democratic Party chairman Liviu Dragnea was forced to resign after a worse-than-expected result for the party in the European Parliament elections.
On Monday, the Supreme Court ordered Dragnea to begin a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence for corruption and abuse of power, that upended the political order in the East European country. The opposition Save Romania Union party has won over 50% of the votes.
Ruling PiS party defeated the pro-European coalition by seven percentage points.
Far-right Flemish separatist party Vlaams Belang made huge gains as the country housing the EU headquarters held a federal election as well.
What’s in store for Europe
The European Parliament elections have offered a moment of reckoning between pro-European and anti-European forces — between those who want greater integration, and those who want to retreat into their nation states.
Speaking of the downfall of the far-right in Austria, Alina Polyakova writes for the New York Times: “Other mainstream European politicians facing threats from a growing far right should take heed: Pandering to them doesn’t work. For all the rhetoric of national sovereignty routinely espoused by [France’s] Marine Le Pen, [Italy’s] Matteo Salvini and other populist leaders, Mr. Strache’s fall shows how these supposedly lofty ideas are a cover for opportunism and hypocrisy.”
Salvini told an Italian TV station on Monday, “I talked to Orban, who is above 40 percent, to Le Pen, who is the first party in France, and I am looking to talk to Farage: it’s a vote that will allow us to change Europe.”
Even though the right-wing bloc he envisioned hasn’t materialised yet, there’s still a chance that it will. That’s because the EPP has to think of potential allies in all directions.
Salvini has indicated that he thinks of himself as an important ally for the EPP in the areas where the latter cannot look to the left for support, such as international trade, some of the regulations of the internal market, and even when it comes to migration and minorities.
However, as Doru Frantescu, CEO of Brussels-based think-tank Votewatch Europe, notes: “The result was mixed for nationalists as they are for other forces.”
“The most important thing now is whether this trend will continue in the next few years or not.”
With the rise of far-right populism within the European Parliament, we can expect demands for single migration policy, revision of multilateral trade pacts, and policies targeting minorities to be tabled – with the concurrent rise of liberal politics and climate action serving as the silver lining.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius