ROME - Smaller European parties saw a surge of support in continent-wide elections for the European Parliament in what politicians and analysts agree will likely be seen as the most consequential since 1979, when European Union voters first began casting ballots for the bloc’s legislature.
Early results Sunday suggested the 751-seat parliament will be more fragmented than ever before. Smaller parties, both euroskeptic and pro-EU ones, fared well at the expense of their more established and bigger center-right and center-left rivals.
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Pro-EU Liberals and Greens will hold the balance of power in the new parliament, which will sit for five years. Philippe Lamberts, leader of the Greens group, said: “To make a stable majority in this parliament, the Greens are now indispensable.”
The rise of new parties appears to have smashed 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).
National populist parties
As the results came in, nationalist populists were on course to win just under a quarter of the seats in the parliament, but they had set their sights on snatching a third of them. In France, President Emmanuel Macron’s La Republique En Marche was defeated, coming in second to Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally. Le Pen welcomed the win, saying it had delivered a serious blow to the authority of the French president.
In Italy, too, nationalist populists led by Matteo Salvini, the deputy prime minister, made important gains. And eurosceptic hard-right parties topped the polls in Britain, Poland and Hungary.
But the bigger takeaway from the election was how well pro-EU Greens and Liberals did. In several countries Green parties saw their support jump from five years ago. In Germany, the Greens made major gains at the expense of country’s left-wing Social Democrats, making a historic breakthrough by securing more than 20% of the vote.
Carsten Schneider, a German Social Democrats lawmaker, acknowledged it was a “bitter result, a defeat for us.”
“I think the main issue was climate change and we didn't succeed in putting that front and center, alongside the big social issues,” he added.
In Ireland, too, Greens were celebrating, clinching three of Ireland’s 13 seats. The sudden crest in support for the Greens comes amid rising anxiety across Europe over the impact of climate change and biodiversity loss.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Eric Varadkar tweeted: “I want to congratulate the Greens on a very good election. It’s a very clear message from the public that they want us to do more on climate action -- and we’ve got that message.”
Voters in 21 countries went to the polls Sunday. In seven other nations, including Britain, voters cast their ballots last week with the results being held back until all countries had completed the balloting.
Bloc gaining power
The European Parliament has become more powerful in recent years — for much of its existence it was just a debating society without clout. Now it helps pick the president of the European Commission and contributes to the shaping of trade and digital regulations. Seats are allocated under a form of proportional representation.
For years, the center-right EPP and the center-left S&D, both pro-EU parties, have together commanded an absolute majority in the parliament and its leaders have more often than not been able to settle disagreements in behind-the-scenes meetings.
In Britain, in an election that wasn’t meant to have been — the country was due to have left the EU by now — the newly formed Brexit Party of Nigel Farage trounced both of Britain’s two main established parties, the Conservatives and Labour, signaling it will likely be a threat to the pair in a general election, which many observers think will have to be called this year.
Both the Conservatives and Labour had been braced for a backlash from voters over Brexit, with the Brexit Party and pro-EU Liberal Democrats expected to do well. The predictions turned out to be right, with the ruling Conservatives recording their worst election performance in their history. The turnout in Britain was higher than previous European polls — as it was across all of the bloc where it averaged 50%, the highest rate since 1994.
British Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan blamed British Prime Minister Theresa May’s reluctance to resign from office for the defeat. On Twitter, he said: “Had the PM announced her resignation even 24 hours earlier, something might have been salvaged.”
Still a strong pro-EU majority
The reduction in the power of establishment parties could potentially make it more difficult for the bloc to agree on collective action when it comes to economic, trade and foreign policies, but EU officials were breathing a sigh of relief Sunday night when it became clear there would still be a strong pro-EU majority in the parliament.
The center-right EPP will likely hold on to 173 seats in the EU parliament, down from 221 in 2014, while the Socialist group will fall from 191 to 147 seats. The Liberals were expected to rise from 67 seats to more than 100; the Greens increased from 50 to 71.
Socialists looked set to top the poll in Spain. And traditional left parties fared better than had been predicted in Italy and the Netherlands.