Centrists Hold Back Far Right in European Elections

Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, left, meets Tuesday with European Council President Donald Tusk on the sidelines of an EU summit in Brussels. European Union leaders are meeting in Brussels to haggle over who should lead the 28-nation bloc’s key institutions for the next five years after weekend elections shook up Europe’s political landscape. (Olivier Hoslet, Pool Photo via AP)

(CN) — The next European Parliament, the world’s only transnational parliament, will be ruled by centrist pro-European Union political parties, but they will be under a lot of pressure after Greens on the left and nationalist parties on the right made gains in Europe-wide elections.

The traditional powerbrokers in the European Parliament — the center-right European People’s Party and center-left Socialists and Democrats — won the most votes, with the conservatives edging the socialists 24% to 19%.

But for the first time, they did not do well enough to form a coalition majority, as they have done in the past. Now they are expected to need a collection of liberal democratic parties led by French President Emmanuel Macron to get business done.

The election was billed as a victory for pro-European parties in the face of a surge in far-right nationalist forces across Europe. But many political analysts warned against that assumption.

“Let’s not forget that the main reason for collective relief after the European Parliament elections is mainly the result of the mainstreaming and normalization of nativism and populism,” said Cas Mudde, a political scientist at the University of Georgia who studies extremist politics in Europe.

Heeding calls to take these elections for the EU’s only elected chamber more seriously, Europeans turned out in high numbers over four days and delivered a European Parliament that is more fragmented — a reflection of the fragmented political scene across Europe where traditional mainstream parties are struggling to hold onto power.

Turnout was about 8% higher than the previous elections in 2014, with about half of Europe’s 426 million eligible voters casting ballots.

This was significant, because turnout consistently had fallen since Europeans first voted to pick members of the European Parliament in 1979, even as the institution was given more powers to act as the EU’s democratically elected decision-maker.

The lack of interest has been viewed as delegitimizing the democratic authority of the EU, which is often blasted for being a distant, abstract and bloated rule-maker over the lives of Europeans. At the same time, low turnout has helped far-right anti-EU parties do better in EU elections than in national contests, leading to an erosion of the EU from within.

The high turnout “may be the most important outcome of these elections, as it could mean a renewed legitimacy for the European Parliament, and perhaps even for the EU project as a whole,” said Simon Hix, a political scientist at the London School of Economics.

This year’s elections were billed as extremely consequential because Europe is in a major ideological political battle between nationalists and liberals over the future of the EU and its institutions.

On Monday, both sides could claim victory.

Parties on the left side of the chamber, ranging from communists to free-market liberals, appeared to have gained a slight edge in the Parliament’s composition. This kaleidoscope of left-leaning parties was projected to win392 of the 751 seats in Parliament, and tempered the narrative that Europe is being taken over by xenophobic far-right politics.

The big winners on the left were the Greens, who are expected to take 69 seats. But their success was mostly concentrated in a few countries in Northern Europe, most notably in Germany, where they gained the second-most votes, outpacing Germany’s traditional center-left powerhouse the Social Democrats. The Greens also did well in France, the United Kingdom, Belgium and the Netherlands.

On the right side, parties ranging from far-right nationalists to Christian Democratic centrists are expected to pick up 359 seats.

On this side, the big winner was Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. His party, the anti-immigrant League, won about 34% of the vote. His success could tempt him to break up the coalition government he is in with a left-leaning direct-democracy party, the 5-Star Movement. The League’s showing was significantly better than in the 2014 elections.

Salvini, a divisive figure who’s viewed by his critics as reinvigorating Italy’s Fascist past, is considered one of the main threats to the EU’s traditional powers. He wants a collection of far-right parties across Europe to exert more influence in Brussels, the seat of the EU government. Other right-wing nationalist parties did well across Europe too.

But what really matters in the Parliament is which parliamentary groups can form a majority and thus pull the levers of the EU’s bureaucracy. The Parliament picks who gets many of the EU’s top jobs, most importantly who runs the European Commission, the bloc’s executive branch.

The commission is the true power in the EU universe, because it draws up legislation, makes rules, conducts trade talks, enforces laws and does such things as negotiate Brexit with the United Kingdom and punish American tech giants for unfair practices and privacy violations.

Deciding who will run the commission is expected to become a hotly contested race now that the European People’s Party and the Socialists and Democrats did not win a majority. Macron is expected to seek to get someone of his liking into the top job.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker delivers his State of Union speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on Sept. 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

The elections were seen as a major setback for Manfred Weber, a German who heads the European People’s Party. Before the election he was considered the frontrunner to replace Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the commission. But political analysts said that it was far from clear if he will win the job now.

Elsewhere around Europe, the elections were expected to have major political repercussions.

In Britain, the major parties, the Conservatives and Labour, received a drubbing as voters flocked to other parties to show their disapproval of how Brexit has been handled.

Those in favor of Brexit voted for a new party formed by Nigel Farage, a far-right politician who led the campaign in 2016 to get Britain out of the EU. His Brexit Party won about 32% of the vote, while the Conservatives picked up only about 8%. His victory will add pressure on the Tories to ensure Britain leaves the EU. The Tories are in a bitter fight over Brexit.

In France, Macron’s party, the Republic on the Move, lost to Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally, which will put more pressure on Macron as he seeks to regain his footing after months of sagging poll numbers and protests against his aggressive pro-business agenda. The election was a paradox for Macron: While being humiliated in France after taking an active role in the campaign, which is unusual for a French president, he is expected to gain power in the European Parliament. His party, formed in 2016, did not have any seats in the Parliament.

The fallout of the elections were immediately felt in Greece. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called a snap general election after his left-wing Syriza party lost to the opposition New Democracy.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.) 

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