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Europe at crossroads as far-right and Greens make gains in elections

‘A new Europe is born,’ said Matteo Salvini of Italy’s League party.

Scenes outside the European Parliament in Brussels (Ermindo Armino/AP Images for Avaaz)
Scenes outside the European Parliament in Brussels (Ermindo Armino/AP Images for Avaaz)

EU leaders and party officials were forced to rethink their strategies after European Parliament elections ended the domination of the main centre-right and centre-left parties.

The results instead revealed an altered political landscape where the far-right and environmentalists stand as forces to be reckoned with.

French president Emmanuel Macron launched a flurry of meetings, ahead of a summit on Tuesday where the 28-nation bloc’s presidents and prime ministers will take stock of the results from elections that attracted the highest voter turnout in 20 years.

Macron’s Republic on the Move party looks to have secured 23 seats in the assembly for the next five years – the same number as the far-right National Rally, whose leader Marine Le Pen was trounced by Mr Macron in national elections two years ago.

He was due to hold talks with the leaders of Spain, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia ahead of the dinner summit in Brussels.

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Marine Le Pen speaks in Paris (Thibault Camus/AP)

France was not the only country where voters took their concerns about immigration and security to the ballot box.

Italy’s populist League party, under hard-line interior minister Matteo Salvini, is set to become one of the biggest in the 28-nation bloc’s assembly. Belgium’s Vlaams Belang also made significant gains.

“The rules are changing in Europe,” Mr Salvini said at his League party headquarters in Milan. “A new Europe is born.”

Provisional results show the League would win 34% of the vote, up from just 6% at the last European election in 2014.

The lion’s share of Britain’s seats went to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, as citizens punished the governing Conservatives and opposition Labour Party for their embarrassing failure to manage the divided country’s delayed departure from the EU.

Riding what they called Europe’s “green wave” backed by Europe-wide rallies urging climate action, environmentalist parties made strong gains, notably in Germany, one of the continent’s main forces for EU integration.

Another mainstream formation, the pro-free-market ALDE group backed by Mr Macron, saw their stake in the 751-seat parliament rise to 109 seats, from 68 in 2014.

The picture of a fractured assembly for the next five years was complete as many citizens turned their backs on the centre-right European People’s Party – one of its key figures, German chancellor Angela Merkel, saw her party lose ground – and the centre-left Socialists.

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German chancellor Angela Merkel (Markus Schreiber/AP)

In Berlin, the leaders of Germany’s governing parties met separately to weigh the fallout from their worst post-Second World War showing in a nationwide election.

Certainly the EU polls have signalled an end to a two-party relationship that has endured for 40 years.

“We are facing a shrinking centre of the European Union Parliament,” EPP lead candidate Manfred Weber said, after just over 50% of the EU’s more than 400 million voters had turned out over four days in the world’s biggest transnational elections. “From now on, those who want to have a strong European Union have to join forces.”

The Socialist lead candidate, Frans Timmermans, essentially conceded defeat, even though the two groups remain the assembly’s biggest by some margin.

“If you lose an election, if you lose seats, you have to be modest,” the former Dutch foreign minister said. “We have lost seats and this means that we have to be humble.”

Spanish caretaker prime minister Pedro Sanchez was a notable exception, as his victorious Socialists looked set to win 20 of the country’s 54 seats in the parliament.

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Pedro Sanchez’s Socialists looked set to take 20 of Spain’s 54 seats (Paul White/AP)

Although still trickling in, results show that the EPP is set to secure 182 seats, down from 217 five years ago. The Socialists are slated to win 147, down from 187.

The two parties have dominated the parliament with a combined majority since elections were first held in 1979. Senior figures from the EPP hold the top posts in the EU’s three main institutions: parliament president, head of the EU’s powerful executive commission and European Council president, who chairs summits of European presidents and prime ministers.

While real power in Europe remains in the hands of the 28 member states, the assembly’s influence has grown. It has helped improve air flight safety in Europe, cut down on plastics use, end mobile roaming charges inside the bloc, boost data privacy and cut carbon dioxide emissions from cars.

The parliament also has an important say in international treaties ranging from trade talks to Brexit.

But now new alliances must be forged. Mr Weber suggested that the EPP, Socialists and ALDE could form a stable majority at the centre of the political spectrum, working in concert with the Greens.

But ALDE officials, including group lead candidate Margrethe Vestager, insist that Europe’s traditional political certainties are a thing of the past.

“The monopoly of power has been broken,” said Ms Vestager, currently the EU’s competition commissioner, describing Sunday’s polls as “a signal for change.”

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