There was a collective sigh of relief as results of the European Parliament elections were released. The center-right and center-left parties that have dominated politics in Brussels and Strasburg took a beating, but voters resisted the siren song of anti-European Union populists and turned to other pro-EU parties. The result is a more fragmented majority but one that retains a commitment to the European experiment — and may even ultimately yield a more durable consensus.
The EU elections are the world’s second-largest exercise in democracy; only Indian elections are bigger. Every five years, more than 400 million people are eligible to vote for the 751 European Parliament members. Interest has been dwindling, however, with turnout dropping to a little over 42 percent in the last ballot in 2014. This year, participation jumped to 51 percent, the highest rate since 1994 and the first increase since 1979.
Voters returned a majority of pro-EU parties; they hold about two-thirds of the parliament’s seats. But the center has shrunk, dropping from 53 to 43 percent of the seats. The center-right European People’s Party (EPP) lost about 40 seats to 180 — it’s still the largest party — and the Socialists are projected to drop from 191 to 152 seats. Rising are groups such as the Liberals, which are expected to have more than 100 seats (up from 67), and the Greens, which picked up some 20 seats.
Euroskeptics also posted gains — some reports said they will eventually take about 30 percent of the parliament’s seats — but their gains were not as strong as anticipated. Britain’s Nigel Farage, one of the drivers of the Brexit campaign, now leads the single largest national party in the European Parliament after his Brexit Party won 29 seats. He has an ally in Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, which topped French polls. That is a disappointment to French President Emmanuel Macron, whose En Marche movement was bested by 1 point, but he can take solace that the National Rally tally was lower than the 2014 results and the traditional French parties of the left and right won less than 10 percent each.
European leaders will now haggle to forge a working coalition in Brussels and apportion positions in the EU government. The EPP remains the leading party but its shrinking size will reduce its leverage in that bargaining. The rise of the Liberals and the Greens will force the governing majority to the left. One expected impact is a renewed focus on climate change in EU policy.
The results will reverberate in Europe’s domestic politics. Germany’s Social Democratic Party dropped to third place in the polls, trailing the Greens for the first time. That poor showing will force a reassessment of — and likely end to — the party’s alliance with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Socialist Union, its Bavarian counterpart. Macron has had a vision for Europe but no European parliamentary party to push it: He now has that platform, which could transform leadership dynamics on the continent. Spain’s ruling Socialist party breathed a sigh of relief after prevailing in those polls.
At the same time, the Greek government has been forced to call an election after its ruling party was shellacked in the balloting, and the Irish prime minister has indicated that he may have to do the same before the year is out. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurtz was “speechless” after his People’s Party won a third of votes despite a corruption scandal that forced the exit of its right-wing coalition partner, Freedom Party. His belief that he had won a vote of confidence from voters was undone hours later when his government lost an actual vote of confidence in the legislature.
In Italy, there is speculation that the right-wing League Party, the junior member of the coalition government in Rome, will use its strong showing — it doubled its results in last year’s national election and well outpaced the senior party in the government, the Five Star Movement — to push for elections and take control of the government. The party’s leader, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, has said that he does not want a showdown, but his patience will likely have limits.
Japan should be pleased with the outcome. Voters’ confirmation of support for the European project echoes Tokyo’s own sentiment, evidenced most plainly by its economic partnership agreement with the EU, which went into force earlier this year. Japan needs a strong partner in Europe to help shore up institutions of international order upon which this country depends.
Japan’s most immediate concern is the Brexit Party’ strong showing. That will shape debate over the successor to British Prime Minister Theresa May, who said she will step down in June, and could push British policy toward a more extreme position in negotiations over Britain’s EU departure. The results could force Labour to support a second referendum on the issue, which will muddy British and European politics anew — proof that EU elections matter, one way or another.