The center-right European People’s Party clung to first position in Sunday’s European election but will have a slimmer plurality in the European Parliament after voters delivered big gains to liberals, Greens and far-right populists.
Voter turnout surged across the Continent to reach 50 percent or more for the first time in at least two decades — suggesting renewed relevance for the EU amid Britain’s so-far failed effort to quit the bloc, and mounting external challenges from Russia, China and the United States.
Initial projections showed the EPP is likely to hold 178 seats — a sharp decline from the 216 it currently holds. The center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) is expected to come second with 138 seats, down from 187.
A new centrist-liberal coalition led by French President Emmanuel Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is predicted to come third, with 104 seats, followed by the Greens with 66 seats. A disparate array of far-right and anti-EU forces, including the U.K. Brexit Party, is set to win at least 116 seats — but it is unclear how coordinated they will be and they are likely to fall into at least two separate groups.
Overall, it is a highly muddled result that is unlikely to lend clarity to the upcoming negotiations to fill the EU’s top jobs, including the presidencies of the European Commission, the Council and Parliament as well as the post of high representative of foreign affairs.
“The EPP does not have the results, nor the political strength anymore to lead the EU and the European Commission”— Udo Bullmann, German MEP
Altogether, pro-EU parties will still control a substantial majority, but the balance of power among them will be difficult to ascertain. Even as the EPP holds on to the top spot, it will be far outnumbered by the other main pro-EU groups — the socialists, liberals and Greens — who together are expected to control 317 seats, and who have vowed to break the conservatives’ monopoly on the leadership of the EU institutions.
Udo Bullmann, the German MEP who leads the Socialists’ group in Parliament, said the EPP’s days in power are over.
“The EPP does not have the results, nor the political strength anymore to lead the EU and the European Commission,” Bullmann said. “We need a new a coalition for reform.”
However, Joseph Daul, the president of the EPP, declared victory for his party and laid claim to the Commission presidency for its nominee, the German MEP Manfred Weber.
“We have won the election,” Daul said at a rally with Weber at the Renaissance Hotel in Brussels. “There is only one job for us — it’s president of the Commission. It’s Manfred Weber.”
Margrethe Vestager, the European commissioner for competition and a prominent liberal, called the election a “landmark” and “a signal for change.”
“This is not anymore just a two-party majority,” she told reporters, referring to liberal gains. “I have been working with breaking monopolies, that is what I have been doing for five years now — this is also what voters have been doing today.”
Le Pen’s symbolic win
While voter turnout was a bright spot for the Brussels establishment, any celebration was tempered by the steep losses for the mainstream center-right and center-left parties that have led the EU since its founding. Gains by the far right suggest the bloc will continue to struggle with a populist insurgency for years to come.
The unsettled landscape is most clearly illustrated in France, where Macron’s La République En Marche party has devastated the traditional big two parties — the conservative Les Républicains and the Socialists. According to projections, Les Républicains lost 13 of their 20 seats, while the Socialists fell from 13 seats to just five. But Macron’s party, which was predicted to win 21 seats, was bested by Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally, which won 22 seats in a highly symbolic victory for the nationalists.
In Germany, the collapse of the Social Democrats was even more dramatic, with a projected loss of 11 seats — to 16 from 27 in the current Parliament. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union, and their Bavarian partners, the Christian Social Union, finished first but were still projected to suffer an overall loss of five seats, to 29 from 34 in 2014.
As the two mainstream parties fell, the Greens soared in Germany, winning a projected 22 seats, up from 13. The far-right Alternative for Germany party also jumped in support, and was projected to win 11 seats.
In Spain, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez led his Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) to a strong victory.
Pedro Sanchez, prime minister of Spain | Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
With 95 percent of ballots counted, PSOE won 33 percent of the vote, and captured 20 seats in Parliament, a pick-up of six seats. The conservative People’s Party finished second with 20 percent and 12 seats in Parliament, a loss of four seats.
The liberal Ciudadanos and the far-right Vox both had disappointing results, returning seven and three MEPs respectively.
The far-left Unidas Podemos will have six MEPs, while former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, now living in Belgium, and his former deputy Oriol Junqueras (jailed on remand in Spain) will both enter the European Parliament.
But the victory by the socialists in Spain, as well as a surprise first-place finish in the Netherlands, and a gain of seats in Malta and Denmark, were not enough to offset the left’s losses in France and Germany, the EU’s biggest countries.
While the French nationalist Le Pen scored a victory over Macron, her party — which she rebranded National Rally from National Front after losing the presidential election in 2017 — was projected to win one fewer seat than in 2014.
Marine Le Pen, the far-right National Rally chief | Philippe Huguen/AFP via Getty Images
Still, that did not stop Le Pen from claiming victory and insisting, without basis, that Macron would have no choice but to dissolve the French National Assembly. “I see this as the people’s victory, which has taken power back tonight with pride and dignity,” Le Pen declared in a speech to supporters. “We welcome this result with joy.”
She added, “A great movement for change is born tonight. I invite all patriots, regardless of where they come from, to come and join the National Rally.”
Among far-right forces, the biggest winner of the night was expected to be Italy’s League, led by Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini who made hardline immigration policies the cornerstone of his campaign. Italian media predicted the League had won up to 32 percent of the vote.
Maïa de la Baume, Lili Bayer, Laura Kayali, Rym Momtaz, Eline Schaart, Diego Torres and Nicholas Vinocur contributed reporting.