European elections: the winners and the losers

These elections were seen as crucial for the European Union's future – as a vote for or against Europe. Now the Europeans have cast their ballots. But which Europe did they choose?

The results of the European elections are projected on a big screen at the media centre of the European Parliament in Brussels. (© picture-alliance/AP)

The day after the European elections most commentators took the view that the danger of a sweeping victory for the anti-European, nationalist and far-right parties had been banished. "We're far away from the brown wave we had so feared," philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy observed with relief in the Italian daily La Stampa. Lévy was among those who in the run-up to the elections had warned urgently against a triumphal march of right-wing populism.

"Perhaps the people of Europe have understood that the countries that pursue only their own interests won't be able to hold their own against China, Russia and the US," the Finnish daily Illtalehti speculated. In Finland, for example, the right-wing populist party The Finns came only fifth in the European elections. In Denmark too, the right-wing populists lost votes, in Spain the far-right Vox party received just six percent, and in the Netherlands Geert Wilders' PVV lost its seats in the EU Parliament, although Thierry Baudet and his relatively new right-wing populist Forum voor Democratie (FVD) won three seats.

In Sweden, the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats gained ground, emerging as the second-strongest party. In Germany, the AfD fell short of its own expectations but still registered a substantial increase in votes, above all in the East of the country, with its share of the vote growing by around four percentage points compared to 2014. But the most resounding victories for right-wing nationalist parties were in France and Italy. Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement won the close-run race against Emmanuel Macron's La République en Marche in France, securing 23.2 percent of the vote compared to the 22.4 percent for the president's party. In Italy Matteo Salvini's Lega emerged as the strongest party of all with roughly 34 percent. And in Hungary and Poland the ruling parties Fidesz and PiS, whose illiberal policies have already saddled their countries with disciplinary proceedings over breaches of the rule of law, also came in first.

Taken together the nationalist and Eurosceptic parties, which are organised into three parliamentary groups, have claimed 171 of the 751 seats in the EU Parliament. Although the anti-EU forces undoubtedly increased their vote across Europe, they fell far short of becoming the strongest group in the Parliament as Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini had hoped. The weekly paper Der Freitag nonetheless finds the results worrying: "The next EU legislature will reflect more than ever a politically divided Europe marked by hostilities and animosities that is not facing the best times. There is a relevant minority that doesn't want to see the Europe of the EU as an ersatz fatherland, and certainly doesn't want it to become that."

The big losers according to commentators are the European People's Party (EPP) and the Social Democrats, who up to now had dominated the European Parliament in a kind of grand coalition. Having secured just 326 of the 751 seats, they no longer have a majority together. This, The Economist predicts, will make the decision-making process in the new European Parliament even more difficult than in the past: "Expect more ad hoc coalitions around case-by-case issues," the magazine writes, adding that the elections have revealed "the full scale of Europe’s political fragmentation." The EPP and Social Democrats could now be more dependent on the votes of the Greens and Liberals, whose parliamentary groups made substantial gains, it says.

Paradoxically, one of the biggest winners of the European elections is the very party whose goal it is to lead its country out of the EU. Nigel Farage's Brexit Party won around a third of the vote in the UK. The Liberal Democrats, the party that clearly opposes Brexit, took second place with 20 percent. The BBC interpreted these results as follows: "The clear message seems to be that people want clarity. Leavers want to Leave, Remainers want to Remain, and efforts to persuade people they should back something in the middle have failed."
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Ulrike Christl

Ulrike Christl

is editor for euro|topics.

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