by Ylenia Gostoli – Al Jazeera
Right-wing parties performed strongly, but not as well as expected and parliamentary majorities are not guaranteed.
Brussels, Belgium – It had been portrayed as a day 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.
The European Parliament election results, however, tell the story of a much more fragmented European Union, where mainstream parties on both the left and the right are losing voters’ confidence – a trend that reflects European national politics in the past few years.
Nationalist parties took home impressive results in countries such as Italy, France, Belgium, Hungary and Poland.
“The result was mixed for nationalists as they are for other forces,” Doru Frantescu, CEO of Brussels-based think-tank Votewatch Europe, told Al Jazeera.
“However, they did much better than five years ago,” Frantescu added. “The most important thing now is whether this trend will continue in the next few years or not. These elections are not the end of European electoral history.”
Turmoil in Europe
Italy’s League and France’s Rassemblement Nationale (National Rally) topped the polls in their respective countries, with Marine Le Pen’s National Rally narrowly defeating Macron.
The vote came after months of Yellow Vest protests in France, which began in opposition to fuel tax rises and turned into a wider backlash against Macron’s government. The president responded with tax cuts and pension rises for the poorest.
In Italy, the League decimated its ally in government, the Five Star Movement (M5S), nearly exactly reversing the balance of power the two held when they first entered into a coalition a year ago.
The party led by Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini, secured 34 percent of the vote, while the M5S lagged behind at 17 percent. The Social Democrats (PD) re-emerged as the main opposition force with 22.7 percent of the share after a sound defeat in the general election last year.
In Poland, the ruling PiS party defeated the pro-European coalition by seven percentage points, while in Hungary, Viktor Orban’s anti-migrant Fidesz party finished far ahead of the opposition with 52.3 percent of the vote.
Fidesz was suspended – but not expelled – from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) last March, and spearheads the cause of “illiberal democracy” in Europe.
In Belgium, far-right Flemish separatist party Vlaams Belang made huge gains as the country held a federal election as well.
In the United Kingdom, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party took the lead with more than 30 percent of the vote.
The two largest political groups in the European Parliament, the EPP and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), both lost more than 30 seats each.
They remain the two main forces in the European Parliament, with the EPP still in the lead – it currently holds all three top jobs in the European Union – but no longer holds a combined majority.
A new centrist group that includes the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and French President Macron’s Renaissance coalition won the most new seats and is set to become a force to be reckoned with in the new parliament. They are being seen as the kingmakers for any majority.
The Greens also made huge gains, particularly thanks to their performance in Germany, winning 18 extra seats across the continent.
Salvini and Le Pen announced earlier this year they intended to set up a new group in the European Parliament, with Salvini emerging as the unofficial figurehead. A group of 11 far-right parties from across Europe rallied alongside Italy’s co-deputy prime minister in Milan on May 18.
Their electoral results, however, have been less than impressive.
Salvini’s ally in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders of the Islamophobic Party for Freedom, didn’t reach the electoral threshold and will have no seats in the new parliament.
The country’s new nationalist outfit, the Forum for Democracy, led by 36-year-old Thierry Baudet, won three seats – but it did nowhere near as well as expected. After coming first in provincial elections earlier this year, the party was tipped to be the main contender to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Instead, it lags in fifth place. In the European Parliament, it’s part of the Eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group.
In Austria, the Austrian Freedom Party (FPO), only managed to come third with 17 percent of the vote and three seats in the ECR group, with a campaign marred by the “Ibiza-gate”.
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. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz met the same fate on Monday, when he faced a no-confidence vote.
In Denmark, the Danish People’s Party suffered a heavy defeat compared with the last election in 2014, when it took more than one-quarter of the vote. It slid to just 10.7 percent, taking one seat in the ECR group.
“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,” Salvini told an Italian TV station on Monday. He showed up at his press conference on election night clutching a set of Catholic rosary beads – as he did during his “Europe of the nations” rally in the final days of the campaign.
“I think that [Salvini] will first try to show the EPP that he and his party are needed to get things done, starting with the appointment of an EPP candidate for the European Commission,” Votewatch Europe’s Frantescu said.
“The EPP has to think of their potential allies in all directions. Salvini has showed he would like to portray himself as an important ally for the EPP in the areas where the EPP 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.”
The lead candidate for the presidency of the European Commission, Manfred Weber, told journalists on Sunday “there is no chance for any cooperation with extremists from the left and from the right”.
However, some analysts argue they already appear to be within their ranks.
While the candidate for the socialist group Frans Timmermans called for a coalition to come together around a single programme, majorities in the European Parliament are normally formed on an issue-by-issue basis.
“One of the potential concrete impacts would be to restrict even more of any kind of common migration policy that the EU might have,” Sarah Wolff, director of the Centre for European Research at Queen Mary University in London, told Al Jazeera.
“There are geographical divisions among [nationalist populist] parties, but in general they will want more restrictive migration policies,” she added.
“We should consider budget as well. These groups might think that the EU is too expensive, leading to a reduction of the EU’s budget for the next couple of years.”
Europe’s leading parties lick wounds after bruising election
Mainstream parties have faced a drubbing at the hands of far-right populists and a rising Green tide.
In Europe’s powerhouses, supporters of mainstream parties have woken to a bruising defeat and are carefully considering their future.
More than 400 million Europeans in 28 member states including Brexiting Britain had been asked to cast a vote for a renewed five-year term of the European Union‘s only directly elected body, the European Parliament.
Germany’s governing parties were dealt their worst results for 70 years, with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right Union bloc taking just 28.9 percent of the vote (down from 35.4 percent five years ago) and their Social Democrat allies receiving just 15.8 percent (down from 27.3 pecent in 2014).
In France, President Emmanuel Macron has faced calls to dissolve parliament after the far right stormed to victory in the European Parliament elections. The results did not trigger “a national crisis”, a government spokesperson told BFM TV, and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe “has all the confidence of the president”.
Macron’s Republic on the Move party is a defining voice among pro-business liberals, but received just 5.1 million votes, compared with 5.3 million for Marine Le Pen’s National Rally.
Both will have 23 seats in the European Parliament, but the far-right National Rally will receive one more if and when Britain leaves the EU and its seats are reapportioned among the 27 nations who remain in the bloc.
“It’s a victory for Marine Le Pen but a small one, less than a percentage point – so she seems to have failed to capitalise on the fact that Emmanuel Macron has had such a challenging year,” said Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Paris.
“His popularity has plummeted mainly because of the yellow vest crisis over inequality. He would have wanted his party to win but the fact the defeat is so small will be something of a relief for him and his party.
“What these results tell us about France is they confirm the demise of the traditional parties of the left and right and confirms the position of the far-right as the main opposition,” Butler added.
Surging Greens and the far right
It was, however, a good night for Europe’s Green movement. France’s Greens will have 13 seats after placing a surprisingly strong third, followed by eight seats for the conservative Republicans and six seats each for the far-left Defiant France and the Socialist group.
In Germany, the Greens took second place with 20.5 percent, whereas its far-right AfD movement only managed a fourth-place showing with 11 percent of the vote. Provisional results across the continent show the Greens coming in as the fourth-largest bloc with 70 seats, an increase of 18 from European elections five years ago.
The “Green wave” continued in Britain, where the Green party outperformed the governing Conservative party, pushing the crisis-hit Tories into fifth place.
But in Britain and in Italy, there was little surprise as right-wing populists surged.
Nigel Farage’s Brexit party is set to be the joint largest party in the European Parliament, with 29 seats, after winning 31.6 percent of the vote.
Liberal Democrats placed second with 20.3 percent, Labour third with 14.1 percent and the Greens with 12.1 percent. The Conservatives could only manage 9.1 percent.
Overall, pro-remain parties outperformed the “hard-Brexiters”, with the resurgent Liberal Democrats, rising Greens, brand new Change UK and Welsh progressive-nationalists Plaid Cymru getting a combined vote share of 38 percent. The Brexit party and UKIP had a combined total of 36.8 percent.
The combined vote share for Conservative and Labour, which both favour a “soft Brexit”, was 23.4 percent.
“For me the big takeaway from the British vote is that the traditional two-party system is under enormous strain,” said Al Jazeera’s Laurence Lee, reporting from London.
“The one thing the Brexit party, the Greens and Liberal Democrats all have in common is that they believe people vote for them when they know their votes will mean something. It is the biggest of ironies that Brexit is leading to calls for a more European style of voting from the parties which did well in this election.”
In Italy, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right League, called on Europe’s other populist parties to join a hardline Eurosceptic bloc after his party took a third of the nation’s vote share, bolstering his role as the flagbearer of the nationalist and far-right forces in Europe.
Salvini told reporters in Milan that he is counting on Farage’s Brexit Party and Hungary’s Fidesz, led by Viktor Orban, to leave their current parliamentary groupings and join his Europe of Nations and Freedom group that includes far-right parties in France and Germany, among others.
Salvini said he hopes to expand the group to at least 100 members, with an ambition to make it as many as 150, by also bringing in parties from the Czech Republic, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Spain, “if everyone can overcome jealousies, sympathies and antipathies”.
Rosa Balfour, of the German Marshall Fund of the United States think tank, said there were “different pictures in different countries”, and it was crucial to see how much the far-right parties had in common as to whether they would be able to form an effective power bloc.
“These parties share an anti-EU agenda,” she told Al Jazeera, speaking from Brussels. “But there are some which are not Eurosceptic – they want to stay in the EU, but they don’t want further integration – while others want to strip the EU of powers.
“We have seen that the centre right has at times flirted with the far right, but it hasn’t always been successful.”
There will be a special EU summit on Tuesday, as the continent’s political leaders get stuck into horse-trading over establishing coalitions and voting blocs, but the main outcome of these elections is a shake-up of the former power bases across Europe.
“It is the end of the dominance of the traditional axis within the European Parliament,” said Al Jazeera’s David Chater, reporting from Brussels. “You could say it’s a victory for democracy, but it does mean that politics in Europe are getting even more complicated.” SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies