BRUSSELS ― Millions of people across Europe voted Sunday to sharpen divisions within the European Union and ramp up debate over the future of the bloc, sending to the European Parliament a historically diverse range of pro-EU parties, who will dominate the chamber, but also giving the body its biggest ever presence of far-right politicians who want to aggressively slash the EU’s power.
The polarization in the parliament, which wields influence over the bureaucracy responsible for EU-wide issues like trade, reflects escalating political battles across the continent. Turnout for the parliamentary elections was estimated to be the highest since 1994. For the first time since 1979, the two broad groups of center-right and center-left parties from various EU member countries, which have together held the majority of seats, appear to lack the numbers together to effectively control the parliament. It appears to be the end of an era of “grand coalitions” that critics saw as milquetoast and often overly deferential to conservatives.
But the poll results suggest it’s that political tradition that European citizens have soured on rather than the institution of the EU altogether. Hard right parties skeptical of European integration, who had pitched the election as the next step in a global surge tied to Brexit and President Donald Trump, fell short of a blowout. Instead, they won in countries where they are already well-established ― notably France (where they had a bigger margin of victory in the last elections in 2014), Italy, the U.K., Hungary and Poland ― and sustained the minority support that they have gained in others. Ultra-nationalists will have unprecedented power and resources, evidence of their popularity. But they won’t be crucial spoilers or kingmakers.
The continent’s Green parties were the group that did surprise. With a big boost in Germany, unexpected strength in France and upswings in smaller countries like Finland, they will have expanded sway within the European Parliament and greater credibility across the continent, particularly in Western Europe, as a political force with significant appeal to voters, especially the young.
Europhiles can be happy about the performance of the coalition of pro-EU, pro-market liberals, who thanks to the backing of French President Emmanuel Macron will be the parliament’s third-biggest force and crucial to its functioning, given that it can no longer simply follow the wishes of the two biggest groups. And despite large losses in Germany and Britain, social democrats and allied center-left forces continue to thrive in Spain and Portugal, where they also hold the national governments, and proved resilient in Italy, France and Poland even as the political dynamics there have shifted away from them.
The strongly pro-EU bent of the new parliament is especially welcome in Brussels, home to much of the group’s bureaucracy and a vibrant crossroads for Europeans in the decades since the founding of the bloc as a post-war peace project.
“People felt concerned about voting for Europe and people feel more European than previous elections. This for me is already a success,” said Piero Delucia, a 36-year-old Italian who came with friends to the plaza outside the European Parliament complex to watch rolling announcements of the election results. Standing between white tents full of young people explaining the benefits of European-level organizing, he and his friends stayed put as a tiny drizzle turned into a small shower. “We are getting more and more towards a European feeling, a European citizenship kind of feeling,” Delucia said.
To some extent, this new rallying together may arise from fear. Analysts point to concern over a continental equivalent of Trump or Brexit, and distaste for far-right parties played a role in driving people to the polls, said Sofi Lindholm, a Finn living in Brussels.
Yet there’s also a clear attraction to new arguments and possibilities. Having greater Green power in the parliament is good for the world, said Lindholm, who noted that she voted for a center-right candidate she knows personally. Alessandro Zunino, a 34-year-old Italian who worked on voter mobilization with a group called Alliance4Europe, said he was especially happy about the increased number of debates between the top EU-level candidates for each party. Zunino said those debates led him to support the social democratic leader Frans Timmermans, despite not voting for that coalition last time around.
The end of the parliamentary elections themselves means the start of a fresh contest to grab those powerful positions that can set the agenda within the chamber. It also means a struggle to craft new and previously unlikely coalitions to move on particular issues, from climate change to regulating the digital economy.
The parliamentarians will also be negotiating with the leaders of Europe’s national governments over how to assign the “commissioner” jobs that run the bloc’s various bureaucracies and have the power to propose policy. There’s a split here even within the pro-European integration camp, and complicated maneuvers will be needed to avoid nasty clashes.
Traditional parties have some soul-searching ahead of them. How can they define themselves more sharply in an era when big-tent politics seem passe?
But there’s certainty on one front: Europe remains, for now, united.
The Friedrich Ebert Foundation (Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung) arranged to support travel and accommodations in the EU for reporting used in this article.
Clarification: A number of parties that describe themselves as socialist ― in countries like Portugal, Spain and France ― operate largely along social democratic lines and at the European Parliament level work closely with self-proclaimed social democrats from other nations. In some instances, however, like Portugal, those parties operate separately from national social democratic parties. Portugal’s governing Socialists did well in the 2019 European elections while the country’s official Social Democratic Party (which is more ideologically conservative and is not part of the European-level social democratic coalition) did poorly by historical standards.