Pro-Europe parties suffer losses in EU elections

May 27, 2019 08:37
Exit poll results are displayed on a screen at the plenary hall of the European Parliament in Brussels on Sunday. Photo: Reuters

Parties committed to strengthening the European Union held on to two-thirds of seats in the EU parliament, official projections from the bloc’s elections showed on Sunday, though far-right and nationalist opponents saw strong gains.

France’s Emmanuel Macron, who has staked his presidency on persuading Europeans that the EU is the answer to the challenges of an uncertain, globalizing world economy, took a personal hit when his centrist movement was edged into second place by Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration, anti-Brussels National Rally.

But Macron’s Renaissance, built on the ruins of center-left and center-right parties, added to gains for liberals at the EU level. Along with a surge for the Greens, that meant four groups occupying the pro-EU middle ground lost under 20 seats, securing 505 seats out of 751, according to a projection by the European Parliament.

That may complicate some policymaking, as a two-party “grand coalition” of the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialists (S&D) no longer has a majority. The liberals, with 100 seats, and Greens, with 70, will want a big say.

But it also dents the hopes of Le Pen, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and others who have been seeking to disrupt attempts to forge closer EU integration.

Tensions among nationalists, who also include the Polish and Hungarian ruling parties and the new Brexit Party of British campaigner Nigel Farage, have limited their impact on policy.

“The big thing is that the gains for the extremists were not very substantial,” said Guntram Wolff, head of the Bruegel economic think tank in Brussels.

Luxembourg’s liberal Prime Minister Xavier Bettel tweeted: “Europe wins! Voter turnout very high and pro-European parties are strongest.”

Rise in turnout

EU officials were delighted by an increase in turnout to 51 percent, up from 43 percent in 2014. It was the first reverse in a trend of falling participation since the first direct EU vote in 1979.

At its highest in 20 years, that turnout may muffle talk of a “democratic deficit” undermining the legitimacy of EU lawmaking.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives lost seven percentage points from five years ago as the far-right Alternative for Germany gained four points to 11 percent. But the headlines there went to the Greens, who nearly doubled their vote to finish second on 21 percent, ahead of the Social Democrats.

In the United Kingdom, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party stormed to victory in the election, riding a wave of anger at the failure of Prime Minister Theresa May to take the country out of the European Union.

The election that the UK only took part in because May delayed Brexit showed a country even more polarized over the EU divorce nearly three years since a 2016 referendum in which it voted 52 percent to 48 percent to leave.

The UK was supposed to have left on March 29 but it remains a member of the EU and its politicians are still arguing over how, when or even whether the country will leave the club it joined in 1973.

In France, an official in Macron’s team acknowledged “some disappointment” that, with some 22 percent, the president’s Renaissance movement had lost first place to Le Pen’s National Rally, which exit polls put on 24 percent.

However, pro-EU parties were still in the majority, with the French Greens coming third.

Added to the dazzling second place of their German counterparts, that lent credibility to expectations of a “green wave” that will influence policy in Brussels in the coming years – promoting controls on industrial polluters of the air, seas and land and tightening terms for EU trade deals with others.

The Parliament’s projection put the EPP on 178 seats, ahead of the S&D on 152, with the liberals on 108, up 39 seats, and Greens on 67, up 15.

On the far-right, two groups in the current parliament had a combined 108 seats, a 40 percent gain from 2014.

The European Parliament election will usher in weeks and possibly months of hard bargaining over who will run EU institutions. Party spokespeople for the four pro-EU center parties were quick to talk of plans for a broad coalition.

The Parliament as an institution has insisted that one of its own winning members should succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the executive European Commission. But many national leaders, who will meet over dinner in Brussels on Tuesday, have said they will not be bound by that demand. Reuters

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