'A new Europe': Far right makes big gains in high-turnout EU parliament elections

Europeans woke Monday to a new political reality after European Parliament elections ended the domination of the EU’s main centre-right and centre-left parties and revealed a changed political landscape where the far-right, pro-business groups and environmentalists will be forces to be reckoned with.

Turning out in numbers not seen for 20 years, voters took their concerns about immigration and security to the ballot box, making parties led by the likes of Italy’s populist Matteo Salvini and France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen among the biggest in the 28-nation bloc’s assembly.

“The rules are changing in Europe,” Salvini, Italy’s hard-line interior minister, said at his League party headquarters in Milan early Monday. “A new Europe is born.”

Voter projections showed the League won 33 per cent of the vote, up from just six per cent at the last European vote 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.

Provisional results showed the Greens’ bloc coming fourth with 70 seats, an increase of 18 compared with 2014.

The free-market liberals saw their stake in the 751-seat parliament rise to 107 seats, from 68 in 2014.

‘Shrinking centre’

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.

“We are facing a shrinking centre of the European Union parliament,” a subdued EPP lead candidate Manfred Weber said, after just over 50 per cent 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.”

Marine Le Pen speaks to the press after the announcement of initial results. (Bertrand Guy/AFP/Getty Images)

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 European Parliament.

Although still trickling in, results show that the EPP is set to secure 179 seats, down from 217 five years ago. The Socialists are slated to win 150, 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’s helped improve air flight safety in Europe, cut down on plastics use, end mobile telephone 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, uncomfortable alliances must be forged. The pro-business liberals, or ALDE, backed by French President Emmanuel Macron, insist that Europe’s traditional political certainties are a thing of the past.

Some evidence of that could be seen with Le Pen’s National Rally apparent capture of one more seat than Macron’s La République En Marche (Republic on the Move), with 24 of France’s 74 in the European parliament, according to an exit poll.

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

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s centre-right party recorded a big win, but he was ousted Monday following the collapse of his scandal-tainted coalition.

In Belgium, an extreme right, anti-immigrant party made a massive surge in Dutch-speaking Flanders, while the Greens made fresh inroads in francophone Wallonia and Brussels.

Greece’s ruling left-wing party fared so poorly that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called snap national elections, likely to be held in June. The opposition conservatives did best, while the extreme-right Golden Dawn lost support.

The centre-left pulled off a surprise victory in the Netherlands, while Geert Wilders’ right-wing populists lost all four of their seats.

Party group leaders begin their horse-trading Monday to see what kind of stable alliance can be established and who might secure the EU’s top jobs. Their decisions will set the stage for EU leaders, who meet over dinner Tuesday to see where the political pieces lie and discuss potential candidates.

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