Pro-EU parties keep populist rise in check as tough coalition talks begin

Citizens await the results during the EU elections outside the European Parliament building, in Brussels on 26 May 2019. [EPA-EFE/JULIEN WARNAND]

The conservative European People’s Party once again won the most seats in the European Parliament after EU elections on Sunday (26 May) but will face difficulties building a controlling majority as the Greens, the Liberals and the far-right posted big gains, reflecting growing political polarisation in the 28-country bloc.

Greens were the biggest surprise, increasing their number of seats to 67 from 50, thanks to a strong showing in Germany and France, giving rise to the term “Green Wave”.

The Eurosceptics and far-right populists also improved, but fell short of reaching one-third of all MEPs as they wished, despite the victory of Marine Le Pen in France and Matteo Salvini in Italy.

According to the results published at 01.35 am, the EPP was on course to get 179 deputies (38 less than in 2014) in the 751-seat European Parliament. The Social Democrats won 152 seats (a loss of 35). The two oldest political groups lost their joint majority in the EU assembly for the first time.

The EPP Spitzenkandidat, Bavarian Manfred Weber, was quick to stake his claim on the top prize. “If we are the strongest group, then every citizen will say that the strongest group will have the right to make the…president of the Commission,” he said in Berlin on Sunday night.

“There is no majority against the EPP possible,” Weber added in Brussels, hours later, but hinted at a broad pro-EU coalition. “When I look at the figures, I don’t see a majority against liberals, socialists, EPP. What I would ask us to do is to join our forces and work together”.

However, an informal alliance comprising the far-left, S&D, the Greens and quite possibly liberals from ALDE, appeared to be in the making, as it was hinted by the leaders of some of these parties.

The lead candidate of the Socialists, Frans Timmermans, insisted on his offer to create a platform of progressive parties. 

“My offer is on the table”, he said after the first official results were announced.

“I will be looking for a progressive majority to do what people expect from us,” on issues like climate change and social justice.

The lead candidate of the liberals, Denmark’s Margrethe Vestager, came close to accepting his offer. She mentioned Timmermans and the Greens as part of an effort to forge a progressive front.

“There is room for talks,” she said. “The most important thing is change so we are able to take action” on issues such as the fight against global warming and tax justice, she said.

The EPP lost a lot of support in Western Europe – France, Spain, the Nordics, but stayed strong or even rose in Austria, Germany, and Eastern Europe – Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovenia.

Weber said he was happy the EPP came first, but the feeling inside his party was not of victory.

All eyes on Macron

All eyes will now be on the new centrist group, created by merging French President  Emmanuel Macron’s LREM and ALDE, which is now the third strongest with 105 deputies. Macron has not formally supported either the EPP or the S&D, but diplomatic sources say contacts with the Social Democrats have been established.

But Macron’s position is somewhat weakened, despite his pro-European, pro-reform drive of the past year, as he lost at home to his nemesis Le Pen.

On the positive side, turnout was the highest since the European elections held in 1999, at 50.5%, compared to 42% in 2014. The massive participation, especially in countries like France, Spain or Poland, helped to reverse the declining trend seen ever since the Europeans started to vote in 1979.

The biggest individual winner was the EPP’s “bad boy” Viktor Orban, who won more than 50% of votes in Hungary, confirming his iron grip on power. The Lega party of Italy’s Salvini got around 30% but failed to become the biggest single party in the Parliament. Salvini plans to set up a new Eurosceptic group in the Parliament.

Overall, the march of Eurosceptic populists lost its stride and the far-right bloc remains fragmented and unlikely to be invited into any ruling coalition.

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

The other big winner of the night was the Green Party, thanks to the spectacular results seen in Germany, where it became second (20.7% of votes) to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU (28.7%), and surprises seen in countries like Ireland.

“Tonight’s Green Wave gives us the mandate and duty to drive change in Europe. Any new Commission should take this into account, as our programme of climate protection, social justice and defence of rule of law and democracy gave the Greens this important win,” said the lead Green candidate, Bas Eickhout.

[Jorge Valero contributed reporting]

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