Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 June 2019

Voters put a new face on European parliament

Dominance of centrist parties is broken as liberals, Greens and far right make gains

A turbulent night in European elections inflicted humiliation on mainstream parties but left the EU bloc confused and divided amid successes for the far right, Greens and liberals.

Nationalist and populist movements scored their main victories in Britain – where Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party routed the governing Conservatives – France and Italy.

However, the much-predicted anti-immigration, anti-EU far-right sweep of the 28-nation bloc did not materialise.

The threat to Angela Merkel’s ruling national coalition in Germany grew as her party lost European seats after setbacks in regional elections. But the main winners were Greens, in second place behind Mrs Merkel’s weakened Christian Democrats.

Environmentalists also flourished in several other member states, appealing especially to young voters inspired by the “extinction rebellion” movement.

Despite a big win for Italy’s right-wing League party leader Matteo Salvini and the narrow defeat of the French President Emmanuel Macron’s La Republique en Marche by Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally, liberal democrats ensured a key role in the new European parliament.

The traditional dominance by centre-right (EPP) and centre-left (S&D) parties was broken, removing their overall majority for the first time since 1979.

Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister who heads the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), said centrist parties had no choice but to turn to his group. Mr Macron, previously cool on ties with ALDE, is now expected to seek a prominent role for his party in what will be the parliament’s third-largest bloc and potentially its “kingmaker”.

Mr Verhofstadt hailed the shifting balance of power as a historic moment, tweeting: “No solid majority is possible without our new group.”

The imprecise nature of voting patterns was spectacularly illustrated in Britain, where Mr Farage and his Brexit Party, launched only six weeks ago and demanding a hard Brexit, won 32 per cent of the poll. With most results declared, Mr Farage is guaranteed 29 seats in the European parliament he wants Britain to abandon.

The conventional big two of British politics, Conservative and Labour, suffered heavy losses.

Conservatives, struggling to hold power amid bitter infighting, slumped to fifth place, with under 10 per cent of the vote and its seats slashed from 15 to four. The party turmoil is set to deepen as rivals vie to replace the prime minister, Theresa May, who stands down on June 7.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, split over Brexit with even senior figures admitting its policy lacks clarity, was also punished by voters.

The party was left with just 10 seats, a loss of eight, its share of the vote down 11 points to 14 per cent. Pro-EU Liberal Democrats took second place with 16 seats, with the Greens winning seven.

Mr Farage said voters had sent a “massive message” that the leading parties had let people down by failing to implement Britain's 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU.

But the outcome may be less clear-cut. Analysis by the Press Association showed the specifically pro-Brexit parties accounting for 34.9 per cent of the poll, against 40.4 per cent for Remainers.

Those figures exclude the Conservative and Labour shares, however, prompting the Leave and Remain camps to squabble over the true divide.

Sir John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University in Scotland, said that for Eurosceptics, the results proved the electorate was willing to leave the EU without a deal. Those favouring a second referendum claimed the breakdown supported their stance.

“In practice, it would seem safer to argue that the outcome confirmed that the electorate is evenly divided as well as polarised between those two options,” he wrote on the BBC website.

In France, Ms Le Pen’s party, formerly known as the Front National but enjoying some success in “detoxifying” its image, narrowly defeated Mr Macron’s LREM but failed to exploit more convincingly the president’s unpopularity after six months of protests, now fading, by the yellow-vests or “Gilets Jaunes”. The two parties will each have 23 European seats.

Ms Le Pen, whose campaign was led by Jordan Bardella, 23, a rising star of her party, claimed the result left Mr Macron with no choice but to dissolve parliament. This was dismissed by the president’s supporters who saw their party’s performance as “respectable” in troubled circumstances.

Results in other EU countries confirm the inconclusive nature of voting.

One of Ms Le Pen’s close allies, the far-right Dutch nationalist Geert Wilders, was driven from the parliament. His party lost all four seats as centre-left social democrats and the conventional right increased their votes.

In Greece, the prime minister Alexis Tsipras promised snap elections after his left-wing Syriza party was comfortably defeated by the conservative New Democracy.

The Hungarian premier Viktor Orban described his party’s 52 per cent share of the vote as vindication of his tough anti-immigration line.

Elsewhere, socialists emulated the centre-left’s successes in the Netherlands by topping the polls in Spain and Malta.

Europe’s political map was left looking distinctly patchy.

Prof Sara Hobolt, from the London School of Economics, said the elections had not produced the much-predicted anti-EU far-right surge, giving pro-European liberals and Greens as much to celebrate.

“Many will see this as a sign that the EU has become more salient to citizens,” she told Sky News. “Yet with greater politicisation has also come a more fragmented and polarised parliament.”

Updated: May 27, 2019 06:11 PM

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