Brussels, Belgium – People across the European Union have cast their ballots on the last day of voting for the European Parliament elections, with early indications suggesting that the bloc’s only directly-elected body is shaping up to be more fragmented.
Provisional results on Sunday showed that the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) together had the most seats, but not enough for a combined majority, while the Greens, Liberals and Eurosceptics – including far-right parties in countries such as France and Italy – made gains.
Turnout was at the highest in 20 years, at 50.5 percent, according to preliminary figures from across all 28 member states – bucking the trend of a steady decline since the elections were first held in 1979. The last time Europeans cast their vote, in 2014, turnout stood 42.6 percent.
Normally considered “second-tier” elections by voters who have often used them to vent their frustration with their national governments, this year’s elections have generated an unusual level of debate amid the rise of nationalist and far-right parties that have made strides at the national level in several European countries.
‘Monopoly of power broken’
As predicted by pollsters in the lead-up to the elections, the two largest political groups in the 751-seat legislature lost their combined majority.
Provisional results put the EPP in the first place with 178 seats, a drop from 216 seats won in the previous election but still being the largest of the parliament’s eight groups. The centre-right bloc, which currently holds all three top jobs in the EU, was followed by the S&D with 147 seats, down from 185 seats in the 2014 vote.
“There is no chance for any cooperation with extremists from the left and from the right,” the EPP’s lead candidate for the presidency of the European Commission, Manfred Weber, told journalists at a press conference on Sunday night.
He was, however, evasive about the fate of Hungary’s Fidesz party in the EPP.
Led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the self-proclaimed poster boy of “illiberal democracy” in Europe, Fidesz has been suspended – but not expelled – from the EPP bloc due to concerns about democracy in Hungary.
On Sunday, Fidesz came first in Hungary with a whopping 52 percent of the vote. Orban has recently praised Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini – who has launched a bid for a new far-right coalition – for “manning the front line” in the central Mediterranean.
A new centrist group including the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and French President Emannuel Macron’s Renaissance movement, which counts in its ranks his party, came third with a projected 101 seats, up from 69 seats.
“New coalitions can be built for those who want to embrace change,” Margrethe Vestager, the group’s lead candidate for the presidency of the European Commission, said at a press conference on Sunday.
“The monopoly of power is broken.”
Frans Timmermans, the lead candidate for the S&D group, suggested he would look to “work with other progressive parties in this parliament to try and build a programme that addresses the aspirations, the dreams, and also sometimes the fears, of our fellow Europeans”.
“If we deliver on these points then we can show that progressive, constructive, cooperative politics delivers results and that nationalism only delivers fear,” Timmermans added. “On the basis of a programme and the coalition, then we can start playing the Game of Thrones on who gets which job,” Timmermans added when prompted about his candidacy to head the European Commission.
The Greens, meanwhile, swept up a surprising 70 seats, according to estimates, mostly thanks to the performance of the German Greens.
“It shows that it’s worth to have a positive vision for the European Union, and that has gained a lot of support,” said one of the leaders of the group, 37-year-old Ska Keller.
Far right wins in Italy, France
Meanwhile, the group that includes Salvini and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France has nearly doubled the number of seats to an estimated 57.
In Italy, provisional results put Salvini’s far-right League party in the lead with 33.6 percent of the vote. The party is on course to win 28 seats in the new parliament.
On Sunday evening, Salvini turned up at a press conference with a rosary, which he also held just over a week ago on a stage in Milan – where he closed his election campaign in the company of far-right leaders and members of parliament from 11 European countries.
“We are the first party in Italy, now let’s change Europe,” Salvini said.
A year ago, when it entered a coalition with the now-beleagured Five Star Movement, the League had received just 17 percent of the vote in Italy’s general election.
In France, Le Pen’s party came first with an estimated 23.5 percent of the vote, edging one point ahead of Macron’s party and gaining 22 seats.
In Britain, the result showed the effect of the country’s stalled EU departure.
Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party was in the lead, while the pro-Europe Liberal Democrats came in second. Both the ruling Conservatives and the main opposition Labour party suffered major losses.