Pro-EU parties suffer but hang on as turnout surges
The center-right European People’s Party clung to first position in Sunday’s European election but will have a slimmer plurality in the European Parliament after voters delivered big gains to far-right populists, Liberals and Greens.
Voter turnout surged across the Continent to exceed 50 percent for the first time in a quarter century — suggesting renewed relevance for the EU amid Britain’s so-far failed effort to quit the bloc, and mounting external challenges from Russia, China and the United States.
Initial results and exit polls showed the EPP is likely to hold 179 seats — a sharp decline from the 216 it won last time. The center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) is expected to come second with 150 seats, down from 187.
A new centrist-liberal coalition led by French President Emmanuel Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is predicted to come third, with 108 seats, followed by the Greens with 68 seats. A disparate array of far-right and anti-EU forces, including the U.K.’s Brexit Party, is set to win at least 115 seats — but it is unclear how coordinated they will be, and they are currently divided into multiple groups.
The fragmented outcome suggests upcoming negotiations to fill the EU’s top jobs — including the presidencies of the European Commission, the Council and Parliament as well as the post of high representative of foreign affairs — will be particularly fraught.
Altogether, pro-EU parties will still control a substantial majority in the Parliament, but the balance of power among them will be difficult to ascertain. Even as the EPP holds on to the top spot, it will be far outnumbered by the other main pro-EU groups — the Socialists, Liberals and Greens — which together are expected to control 326 seats, and which have vowed to break the conservatives’ monopoly on the leadership of the EU institutions.
Udo Bullmann, the German MEP who leads the Socialists’ group in Parliament, said the EPP’s days in power are over.
“The EPP does not have the results, nor the political strength anymore to lead the EU and the European Commission,” Bullmann said. “We need a new a coalition for reform.”
However, Joseph Daul, the president of the EPP, declared victory for his party and laid claim to the Commission presidency for its nominee, the German MEP Manfred Weber.
“We have won the election,” Daul said at a rally with Weber at the Renaissance Hotel in Brussels. “There is only one job for us — it’s president of the Commission. It’s Manfred Weber.”
Margrethe Vestager, the European commissioner for competition and one of the Liberals’ nominees for Commission president, called the election a “landmark” and “a signal for change.” She said both the EPP and the Socialists had been put on notice that they could not carve up the EU to suit themselves.
“This is not anymore just a two-party majority,” she told reporters, referring to liberal gains. “I have been working with breaking monopolies, that is what I have been doing for five years now — this is also what voters have been doing today.”
Le Pen’s symbolic win
While voter turnout was a bright spot for the Brussels establishment, any celebration was tempered by the steep losses for the mainstream center-right and center-left parties that have led the EU since its founding. Gains by the far right suggest the bloc will continue to struggle with a populist insurgency for years to come. Most immediately, the higher numbers of nationalists could create new obstacles during legislative debates.
The EU also faces the highly unpredictable presence of a large contingent of pro-Brexit MEPs from Britain. The Brexit Party, led by the EU antagonist-provocateur Nigel Farage, was projected to win 29 seats. Farage, in a brief victory speech, declared that his party wants a role in the internal negotiations in London over how to accomplish Brexit.
The mainstay Conservative and Labour Parties took a severe drubbing in the U.K. and Farage warned that those results would be repeated in a national election if Britain fails to meet the latest Brexit deadline. “If we don’t leave on October 31, then the scores you see for the Brexit Party today will be repeated in a general election and we are getting ready for it,” Farage said.
Beyond Brexit, the EU’s unsettled landscape is most clearly illustrated in France, where Macron’s La République En Marche party has devastated the traditional big two parties — the conservative Les Républicains and the Socialists. According to projections, Les Républicains lost 13 of their 20 seats, while the Socialists fell from 13 seats to just six.
But Macron’s party, which was predicted to win 21 seats, was bested by Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally, which won 22 seats.
In Germany, the collapse of the Social Democrats was even more dramatic than in France, with a projected loss of 11 seats — to 16 from 27 in the current Parliament. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian partner, the Christian Social Union, finished first but are still projected to suffer an overall loss of five seats, to 29 from 34 in 2014.
As the two mainstream parties fell, the Greens soared in Germany, winning a projected 22 seats, up from 13. The far-right Alternative for Germany party also jumped in support, and is projected to win 11 seats.
In Spain, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez led his Socialist Party (PSOE) to a strong victory.
With 95 percent of ballots counted, PSOE won 33 percent of the vote, and captured 20 seats in Parliament, a pickup of six seats. The conservative People’s Party finished second with 20 percent and 12 seats in Parliament, a loss of four seats.
The liberal Ciudadanos won seven seats, and the far-right Vox won three seats. The far-left Podemos will have six MEPs, while former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, now living in Belgium, and his former deputy Oriol Junqueras (jailed in Spain) will both enter the European Parliament.
But the victory by the Socialists in Spain, as well as a surprise first-place finish in the Netherlands, and a gain of seats in Portugal, Malta and Denmark, are not enough to offset the center-left’s losses in France and Germany, the EU’s biggest countries. The Socialists are also predicted to lose six seats in Romania.
Frans Timmermans, the Socialists’ nominee for Commission president, acknowledged the mixed results for his party.
“My political family has lost seats,” Timmermans, a former Dutch foreign minister who is currently first vice president of the Commission. “We have lost seats and that means we have to be humble. But I’m also optimistic.”
Timmermans said his party is hoping to forge a left-leaning alliance. “We will create a platform on the basis of progressive politics, forward-looking, dynamic,” he said.
In Greece, left-wing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced snap national elections after his Syriza party suffered steep losses.
While the French nationalist Le Pen narrowly edged out a victory over Macron, her party — which she rebranded National Rally from National Front after losing the presidential election in 2017 — is projected to win one fewer seat than in 2014.
Still, that did not stop Le Pen from claiming victory and insisting, without basis, that Macron would have no choice but to dissolve the French National Assembly. “I see this as the people’s victory, which has taken power back tonight with pride and dignity,” Le Pen declared in a speech to supporters. “We welcome this result with joy.”
She added, “A great movement for change is born tonight. I invite all patriots, regardless of where they come from, to come and join the National Rally.”
Among far-right forces, the biggest winner of the night was Italy’s League, led by Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, who made hard-line immigration policies a cornerstone of his campaign. Initial results show the League has won some 33 percent of the vote and captured 28 seats — a huge leap from the five seats that the party won in 2014.
In Poland, the governing right-wing Law and Justice Party is projected to win five additional seats, bringing to 24 its number of MEPs.
In the Netherlands, the new far-right Forum for Democracy party performed worse than expected, but still won three seats.
But the picture is not entirely positive for right-wing parties. In Denmark, the Danish People’s Party, which is part of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, is projected to lose three of its four seats. Overall the ECR is projected to lose 20 seats, most of them British Conservatives who were decimated by the backlash over their handling of Brexit.
Jacopo Barigazzi, Maïa de la Baume, Lili Bayer, Laura Kayali, Rym Momtaz, Eline Schaart, Silvia Sciorilli-Borrelli, Diego Torres, Nicholas Vinocur and other POLITICO journalists across Europe contributed reporting.
This article has been updated.
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