A diffuse alliance of pro-EU parties largely held their ground in Sunday’s European elections, after a bruising battle with anti-establishment groups that saw Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche defeated in France.
With indications of turnout rising for the first time 40 years, early estimates produced by the European Parliament suggest voters returned a more fragmented pro-EU majority, with traditional centre-ground parties losing seats to Greens and Liberals. Eurosceptic and far-right parties made modest gains but remained roughly a quarter of MEPs.
The results across the EU’s 28 member states will have a decisive impact on the political direction in Brussels for the coming five years, determining the parliament’s stance on sensitive issues such as green taxes and international trade deals. They will also weigh heavily on the race for the bloc’s top jobs.
If the estimates are confirmed, it would spell the end of the centre-left and centre-right majority that has held sway in the parliament since 1979, giving way to a more divided pro-EU bloc that will include up to four parties.
Rightwing Eurosceptics also looked set to make some important gains, notably in France and Italy, but without amassing the numbers to make a decisive difference in the EU’s main legislative chamber.
Most notably, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally emerged victorious from her bitter fight with Mr Macron, delivering a serious blow to the authority of the French president. Mr Macron’s list took 22.5 per cent of the vote, trailing Ms Le Pen’s far-right group by 1.2 points, according to the parliament estimates.
Eurosceptic, anti-establishment and hard-right parties were also expected to top polls in the UK, Italy, Poland, and Hungary. Nigel Farage’s Brexit party was in contention to be the biggest single national party in the parliament, potentially beating both Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and Matteo Salvini’s rightwing League.
Germany’s left-right grand coalition faced a potentially significant electoral shock, with estimates indicating the Green party had made a historic breakthrough, taking 20.9 per cent of the vote.
Philippe Lamberts, leader of the Green group, said: “To make a stable majority in this parliament the Greens are now indispensable.”
This pushed the centre-left Social Democratic party into third place for the first time in nationwide elections, raising pressure on party leaders to rethink their federal alliance with the centre-right CDU and the CSU, its Bavarian sister party.
Carsten Schneider, the German Social Democrats’ chief whip, said it was a “bitter result, a defeat for us”. He acknowledged that many voters had switched to the Greens. “I think the main issue was climate change and we didn’t succeed in putting that front and centre, alongside the big social issues.”
With votes shifting to smaller parties, early estimates suggest the centre-right European People’s party will 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 traditional centre-ground pan-EU parties lost ground to the Liberals, who are expected to rise from 67 to more than 100 seats, while the Greens increased from 50 to 71, boosted by their performance in Germany.
While the EPP remains the biggest group in the parliament, its diminished size may hamper Manfred Weber, its lead candidate, in making a claim to the presidency of the European Commission.
EPP parties were in first place in Germany, but Ms Merkel’s CDU secured 28 per cent, seven points down on its vote share in 2014.
Austria’s Sebastian Kurz said he was “speechless” after a crushing victory, securing a third of all votes in spite of a corruption scandal that has brought down his coalition government with the far-right Freedom party.
More on the 2019 European elections
The Socialists looked set to top the poll in Spain, in a boost for Pedro Sanchez, the prime minister. There were also unexpectedly strong showings in Italy and the Netherlands, where the centre-left had been battered in recent years. The Netherlands is home of Frans Timmermans, the lead candidate for the centre-left in its pan-European campaign.
In France, however, the Socialist party was in a battle to retain any presence in the parliament, with its share of the vote close to 5 per cent threshold for seats, according to the parliament’s estimates.
Turnout was estimated to be close to 50 per cent across the EU, the highest rate since 1994. It bucks a 40-year downward trend that had often been cited as evidence of the parliament’s failing to connect with its electorate. In 2014, 42.6 per cent of the electorate took part.
Spain, France, Germany and Romania saw particularly big increases in participation. But in other member states voting levels only improved on extremely low historical levels: Slovakia, for instance, recorded an increase from 13 to 20 per cent.
The results will be followed by a month-long scramble in parliament as the pan-European groups compete for MEPs and negotiate over the terms of any stable pro-EU majority.
Haggling over MEPs made a big difference to group standings in the wake of the 2014 result, with the Liberals growing almost 50 per cent. In 2019 the reconfiguration of party groups may be particularly marked because of the influx of new national parties such as Mr Macron’s En Marche, Britain’s Brexit party and Vox in Spain.