A general view of the Plenary Hall during the election night for European elections at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, May 27, 2019.
A general view of the Plenary Hall during the election night for European elections at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, May 27, 2019.

ROME - Euroskeptic parties topped the polls Sunday in the European Parliament elections in Britain, France and Italy. Across the 28 member European Union, they enjoyed their best ever results in the five-yearly elections, boosting their share of seats in the 751-strong parliament from 155 to 169.

Italy’s Matteo Salvini, whose Lega Party scored a resounding win and was on course to win around 30 percent of the votes cast in his country, boosting his ambitions for a leading role on the European stage, was exultant, arguing voters had given him “a historic mission” to change the EU.

Interior Minister and Deputy Premier Matteo Salvini arrives for a press conference at the League's headquarters, in Milan, Italy, May 27, 2019.
In Italy, Anti-Migrant Populist Wins Big

The big winner in Italy’s vote in the European elections was Matteo Salvini's anti-migrant League party, which took one-third of the Italian vote, strengthening his grip on government. His coalition partner, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, was the big loser. After just one year in government, the result turned around the balance of power between the two ruling parties, but Salvini immediately pledged not to dissolve the ruling coalition.
Salvini was quick to thank Italians after the results of Sunday’s vote in the European elections showed him ahead by far.

He congratulated Marine Le Pen for her victory over President Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche party and Nigel Farage for the success of his newly-formed Brexit Party in Britain. “I am counting on having allies everywhere to save the EU ... to change its rules,” he said. “We finally have to change after decades of bureaucrats and bankers' rules.”

But behind all the populist celebrations Sunday night there was also quiet satisfaction in Brussels among EU officials, who had feared euroskeptics would run away with the election and do even better.

Some officials suggested that this year’s parliamentary elections may mark a high-water mark for nationalist populists, noting the surprise resurgence in the fortunes of smaller strongly pro-EU parties.

Leader of the Brexit Party Nigel Farage speaks as
Leader of the Brexit Party Nigel Farage speaks as he and newly elected Members of the European Parliament from Brexit Party attend a news conference following the results of the European Parliament elections, in London, May 27, 2019.

In Britain, pro-Remain parties together attracted more votes than the Brexit Party.

“More a ripple then for the populists and not a flood,” said a senior adviser to outgoing European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

For many the bigger story of the night was the strong performance of the Greens and Liberals — in Britain the Liberal Democrats stormed to big victories in London, a traditional Labour Party stronghold, and came second behind the Brexit Party across the country.

Sven Giegold, background, top candidate of the Eur
Sven Giegold, background, top candidate of the European Green Party, and Robert Habeck, chairman of the Green Party, attend a news conference after the elections for the European Parliament in Berlin, Germany, May 27, 2019.

In Germany, the Greens made major gains at the expense of country’s left wing Social Democrats, making a historic breakthrough with more than 20 per cent of the vote.

Despite the big populist wins in Britain, France and Italy, the results did not match the expectations of the continent’s nationalist insurgents. They had talked about grabbing a third of the seats in the parliament, but appear to have won just under a quarter. In Poland and Hungary they also had success, but elsewhere their performance was underwhelming — especially in Germany and Austria — and in the end the populist finish overall was not that much better than in 2014.

Leader of France's National Rally Party Marine Le
FILE - Leader of France's National Rally Party Marine Le Pen speaks during a news conference in Milan, Italy, May 18, 2019.

Le Pen’s party came in slightly down on its 2014 result. The Danish People’s Party won only one seat, compared to four five years ago. In the Netherlands the anti-Islam Freedom party lost all four of its seats, including that of its leader, Geert Wilders. Thierry Baudet, the new Dutch populist leader, saw his party win three seats, fewer than had been forecast.

The populists fell short of their hopes mainly thanks to a surge in support across the continent for the Greens and smaller pro-EU liberal parties. And in parts of southern Europe there was a surprising revival of traditional socialist and social democratic parties. While the Democratic Party (PD) in Italy lost almost half the number of votes it won in the last European elections, it staged a recovery from the 18 percent it secured in last year's national election.

Nicola Zingaretti, PD’s new leader, said he was “very satisfied” with the party’s performance. And in Spain, where the far right Vox party won three seats, the ruling Socialists of Pedro Sánchez built on their April national election victory to top the poll, closing with a 33% share of the vote and winning 20 seats, six more than in the 2014 European election.

Despite the less than impressive performances of their own national parties, the strategic gamble by Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Macron paid off. They focused their campaigning on representing the populists as an existential threat to the EU, atavistic throwbacks determined to fracture Europe into competing nation states.

The higher turnout than in the previous four European parliamentary elections is being credited by pollsters to their warnings as euroskeptic parties tend to do better with low turnouts.

But for all the sighs of relief in Brussels, governing the bloc is likely to become more complicated thanks to a much more fragmented parliament. The centrist establishment parties recorded loses and the the duopoly of control of the parliament traditionally enjoyed by the center-right European People’s Party, EPP, and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, S&D, has now been overturned.

There will have to be even more horse-trading and the establishment parties will not have such a cozy time.

“For the first time since 1979, EPP & S&D no longer have a majority together,” tweeted Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, ALDE. “No solid majority is possible without our new group,” he added, hailing the night as a historic one. “This evening is a historical moment because there will be a new balance of power in the European Parliament,” he said, as the election results came in.

Verhofstadt said he hoped to form a new group within the Parliament by allying his ALDE group with French President Macron's La Republique En Marche party, along with other “reform-driven parties.”

With a more fragmented parliament and more haggling to be done, the populists may find that cohesion is beyond them. Already split into three alliances in the parliament itself, horse-trading is likely to bring out the differences in their agendas as much as their similarities, say analysts.