BRUSSELS — Populists and nationalists who want to chip away at the European Union’s powers increased their share in Europe’s Parliament after four days of continent-wide elections, but it was not the deluge that many traditionalists had feared.
When the vote counting is done, the populists are expected to get around 25 percent of the 751 seats, up from 20 percent five years ago, figures released by the European Union showed on Sunday.
But a higher than usual turnout suggested that pro-European voters were also more motivated than before.
[Read more on the important gains made by Spanish Socialists.]
Taken together, the results indicated that the struggle over the future direction of the bloc — more integration among European countries, or less — would only intensify.
With more of a voice in Parliament, populists and nationalists would be expected to try to push harder on issues like controlling immigration and the budget. And they are likely to try to gum up the plans of the pro-Europeans, pressing for more power to go to the nations rather than to a bureaucracy they consider elitist.
Still, the anti-E.U. forces remain disparate and divided, and may have trouble wielding significant power.
Instead, the biggest impact was likely to be felt exactly where the far-right and populist leaders most wanted — in their home countries, particularly in France and Italy, where they are threatening to further disrupt traditional party systems and angling to gain power. For months, they have promoted these elections as a litmus test of their popularity.
“The electorate is crying out for change and is therefore volatile — preferring to back new insurgents rather than the status quo parties that have been around for decades,” said Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The fear of a far-right takeover of the European Parliament has mobilized Europe’s pro-European forces, resulting in a huge surge in turnout and in support for Green and Liberal parties throughout Europe.”
[Spanish Socialists made important gains in three different elections, strengthening the hand of the prime minister.]
On Sunday, the results quickly reverberated across the political scene from Rome to Paris.
In France, the vote results on Sunday suggested a difficult time ahead for President Emmanuel Macron, who has presented himself as a champion of European integration and a bulwark against those who wish to weaken it. His slate for the European Parliament being defeated by the National Rally party of Marine Le Pen, an outspoken critic of the bloc, according to final results.
The defeat appeared to be by a small margin — but it would be enough to deal a symbolic blow to the young president.
Ms. Le Pen called the result “a vote for France, and for the people.”
Mr. Macron’s prime minister, Édouard Philippe, conceded defeat and said that he received “these results with humility.” He said that “political leaders need to hear the message” and that it was “a time for action.”
Turnout was expected to top 50 percent in France, significantly higher than the 42 percent of five years ago.
The same was true for the European Union as a whole, the first increase in turnout in 40 years and the best since 1994.
The largest party, the governing Christian Democrats, also lost some ground, while the far-right populists, the Alternative for Germany, got about 11 percent. It appeared to be a weaker showing for the party than in the national elections of 2017, when it won 12.6 percent.
In the European Parliament, with the decline of mainstream parties and increased fragmentation, for the first time in 40 years the center-right and the center-left would no longer control a majority. Both lost ground, with centrist Liberals, Greens and the populists all gaining.
While pro-European mainstream parties appear to have won about two-thirds of the seats, the center-right and center-left will have to cooperate in coalition with the Liberals, helped by Mr. Macron’s party, to form a sustainable majority. And the Greens, who did well all over the continent, will have a louder voice.
Leaders of the two largest mainstream parties in the European Parliament ruled out working with the far right and appealed for cooperation among pro-European parties.
Manfred Weber, leader of the center-right European People’s Party, said Sunday night that “from now on, those who want to have a strong European Union have to join forces.” He said his group would not cooperate “with any party that doesn’t believe in the future of the European Union.”
Centrists took some solace from the results.
“Defying the doomsayers once again, Europe continues to muddle through reasonably well,” said Holger Schmieding, chief economist of Berenberg, a German bank.
“Previous gains for populist parties at the national level, as well as the challenges of Brexit, Trump, China and Russia, have elicited some counterreaction of the pro-European mainstream,” he said. He called it part of a “largely healthy debate about the future of European integration.”
Mr. Leonard, the European Council on Foreign Relations director, said that “contrary to predictions, there has been no continentwide shift to far-right or anti-European parties.”
But the decline in vote share for what he called “status quo parties” is “a warning that business as usual is not an option,” he said. “The composition of the new Parliament will be weighed in favor of pro-Europeans, but it does not mean that they have a mandate for ‘more of the same.”’
This year’s European Parliament vote drew more interest than any of the bloc’s votes in the last decade. Observers looked to it to gauge the popularity of the various anti-immigration, anti-elite, Euroskeptic parties across the bloc.
For the individual member states, the results were seen as judgments on the parties in power, no more so than in major players like France, Germany, Italy and Poland.
In Belgium, which also held national and regional elections, there was a big victory in the Dutch-speaking north of Flanders for Vlaams Belang, a far-right, anti-immigrant separatist party. It may become the second-largest party in the Flemish parliament behind the N-VA, another nationalist party. Greens and Socialists did well in Brussels and French-speaking Wallonia.
In Greece, after a bad defeat to conservatives, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, of the left populist Syriza party, called for early elections, probably to take place in June instead of October. He is thought to want to limit his party’s anticipated losses to New Democracy, which is expected to win control of the government.
The German vote will be seen as a judgment on the center-left Social Democrats, on the far-right Alternative for Germany and on the new leader of the Christian Democrats, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who hopes to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Italy was being watched to see how well its deputy prime minister, the rollicking populist Matteo Salvini of the League, did against his coalition partners, the Five Star movement. The fate of the coalition appeared to be at stake. Mr. Salvini remains Europe’s champion proselytizer of the anti-immigrant far right.
Mr. Salvini’s anti-immigrant, populist League came in first, with more than 34 percent, easily surpassing the minimum necessary to be considered a success, according to provisional results. He had aimed for more. Still, five years ago, the League won only 6.2 percent of the vote. Its coalition partner, the left-populist Five Star Movement, was running third to the socialist Democratic Party.
Mr. Salvini cast the vote as a referendum on Europe, and has improved his claim to lead the Euro-antagonistic and nationalist forces inside the European Union.
While the varying populists will try to vote as a bloc, they are not expected to be able to form a single grouping, as there are fervent differences among them on issues like Russia, regional aid and the distribution of migrants throughout the bloc.
The one thing the varying populists do agree on is disrupting the system, and they are bound to make consensus more difficult on future European budgets and legislation. This European Parliament will simply be messier and harder to control than before.
Britain was a special case, given its plans to leave the European Union. The election was seen more as a judgment on the two main parties — the governing Conservatives and the opposition Labour — rather than any continental issue.
The results looked to be a disaster for both main parties, with a resounding victory for the new Brexit Party of Nigel Farage. But the impact will be more on British domestic politics than European politics.
Historically, turnout for European parliamentary elections is low, and voters tend to use the five-year elections as a way to protest their national governments. Most voters cast ballots on national issues, for national parties, which then gather into political groupings in the European Parliament.
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