A surge in voter turnout across most of Europe saw centrist parties lose scores of European Parliament seats to Eurosceptics and environmentalists.
Manfred Weber, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) candidate for Commission president, lamented on German television as early voting results arrived that the “the middle, the democratic centre, is weakening in Europe.”.
That could make it harder to pass big-package legislation, such as the proposed €94.1 billion Horizon Europe R&D programme. A newly-enlarged Eurosceptic group has vowed to push back against what they see as Brussels largesse. At the same time, a surge in Green parties could complicate legislation over the even-bigger Common Agricultural Policy – which French Green leaders, for instance, have pledge to make more eco-friendly.
For the first time in the history of the European Parliament, the combination of the EPP and the centre-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D) is not expected to constitute a majority of MEPs, though they are expected to remain the two largest groups.
The liberal Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) group is on track to finish third overall – in part because of the decision of French President Emmanuel Macron to throw his En Marche party’s votes in with other liberals. That raises the possibility of a three-way alliance; while potentially cheering to centrists, it would still be a complex political geometry for anyone wanting more big-package legislation.
In a European Parliament press conference at midnight on 27 May, Weber appeared to cast doubt on the prospect of an alliance with ALDE and instead hinted at cooperation with the Greens, who will be the fourth-largest group. Weber also ruled out cooperation with “extremists from the left and from the right.”
ALDE and Emmanuel Macron have been critical of the so-called Spitzenkandidat process, an informal arrangement whereby the lead candidate of the largest political group – in this case, Weber – goes on to become president of the European Commission. The incumbent Jean-Claude Juncker is the only Commission president to be chosen in this way.
But the most significant results may not be in the who’s up-who’s down outcomes – but rather in the sheer numbers who turned out to vote. Since direct voting for MEPs began in 1979, turnout through most of Europe has slowly dropped – to less than a quarter of registered voters in some countries. But preliminary country-by-country results suggested the turnout was 50.5 per cent, the highest in 20 years, as voters on left and right decided to make their opinions known.
Eurosceptics gain strength
A new alliance of nationalists and Eurosceptics is projected to come fifth. Though such groups have thus far been a small minority in the European Parliament, support has grown in many countries for anti-immigration parties since the 2014 election, which took place before the 2015 migration crisis.
Italy’s League party, led by deputy premier and interior minister Matteo Salvini, has joined forces with other right-wing groups including Germany’s Alternative for Germany party, France’s National Rally, the Finns Party and the Danish People’s Party to create the European Alliance for People and Nations. The League topped exit polls in Italy.
Also projected to be the joint fifth-largest group is the European Conservatives and Reformists group, greatly diminished by the near-wipeout of British Conservative MEPs. A second Eurosceptic alliance led by Nigel Farage, the European Freedom and Direct Democracy Group, is projected to be only a few seats smaller.
An enlarged eurosceptic minority could make its presence felt most strongly in the next legislature, particularly in committees, which have a strong hand in drafting positions for the whole assembly to adopt.
Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party came first in the UK by a very wide margin, with an estimated 32 per cent of the vote. Britain’s governing Conservatives, meanwhile, are predicted to come fifth, with just nine per cent of the vote, behind the Liberal Democrats on 20 per cent, Labour on 14 per cent, and the Green Party on 12 per cent.
The Greens will be the fourth biggest group in the next EU Parliament after their share of seats rose to more than 9% from 7%, according to provisional results released on Monday morning in Brussels. Big gains in Germany and France underpinned the European environmental movement’s success while the mainstream Christian Democrats and Socialists saw their combined share of seats fall below 50% for the first time.
The greater fragmentation of the 751-seat European assembly gives smaller pro-EU groups a chance to wield more clout, especially when it comes to installing a new leadership team at the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm. The Greens signaled they would demand a high price for joining a pro-EU majority coalition to help counter a parallel boost for euroskpetic, far-right parties such as the League of Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini.
“We want to weigh in on the negotiations,” Philippe Lamberts, Belgian co-leader of the Green faction in the EU Parliament, told reporters in Brussels as the final ballot results were still being tallied. But he insisted his party wants “measurable, verifiable and tangible change” as the reward for its support.
The Greens encompass two often-competing threads: grassroots action and skepticism of globalization on the one hand, and pro-EU instincts and a commitment to multilateralism on the other.
This gives the Greens a foot in both broad political camps — with populists such as Salvini and France’s Marine Le Pen and with centrist political families like the Christian Democrats and Socialists.
German members of the EU Parliament’s Green group will increase by nine to 22, while French members are slated to double to 12, according to the preliminary election results.
Another country where environmental campaigners’ political fortunes are improving is Belgium, where the Greens are slated to increase their representatives in the EU Parliament to three from two following months of weekly climate demonstrations, driven in part by a United Nations report on the dire state of climate change.
“That was a wake-up call because the report said we have only about 10 years left to act,” said Saskia Bricmont, a Belgian Green candidate who failed to win a seat in the European assembly five years ago and who is expected to enter this time.