28 May 2019

EU citizens went to the polls from 23 to 26 May to elect their representatives to the new European Parliament (EP) for the next five years. Traditionally, these elections are akin to 28 national elections in 28 countries, with member states focusing on domestic issues rather than on the EU. This makes an overall EU-wide picture difficult to paint.

However, there are key takeaways from these elections for the future of European politics:

  • As predicted in a pre-election Open Europe briefing, the European People’s Party (EPP) and Socialists and Democrats (S&D) groups have lost their combined majority for the first time, forcing them to probably rely on the Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) and/or Green parties in the new EP.
  • While Eurosceptic parties finished first in votes and seats in Italy, the UK, Poland and France, in several member states Eurosceptic parties have not done as well as predicted.
  • Green parties did better than expected in countries such as Ireland, Germany, and France.
  • Turnout was at 50.5%, a record high in twenty years, suggesting that European citizens are increasingly engaged and motivated to have a say in the future of EU institutions.

How were these trends assessed across the continent? Open Europe has collected some reactions from politicians and papers across a number of member states about what the EP elections mean, both for their domestic political landscapes and for the future of Europe.

Reactions to national and overall EU results 

Germany

The German Christian Democratic Union (CDU) saw its vote share fall to 28.9%, while still remaining the joint largest single party in the EU27, with 29 seats (the UK Brexit Party also now holds 29). The Greens came in second with 20.5%, while the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) fell to 15.8%. The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) did worse than expected, collecting 11% of the vote.

CDU Chairwoman Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said, “Our goal was to be the strongest party in Germany and make it clear that we can give a majority to the European People’s Party (EPP) in Europe.”

The CDU advocates the EPP’s candidate for European Commission President, Manfred Weber, for the top job, saying, “As the strongest  force in Germany, we will make clear our claim in Brussels that Manfred Weber should become the next EU Commission President.” Weber belongs to the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).

In the press, a Der Spiegel article titled “The monopoly of power is broken” says, “One thing is certain: The big shift to the right has failed to materialise, which probably has to do with the very high voter turnout. Voter turnout was at 50.5% EU-wide, the highest in 25 years, reaching 61.5% in Germany. Instead, the EU is dealing with a completely different situation: a grand coalition is no longer possible, governance is becoming more complicated – but possibly also more willing to change.”

A piece in Die Welt piece notes, “Despite all the crises, the European Union is not on the precipice. It is not in danger of experiencing a crash…But there is a risk that the Union will produce ever worse results as costs rise, economic fragmentation between the West and East and North and South further increases, and the sense of belonging of Europeans continues to dwindle,” adding,

The European elections could be a turning point: There are new majorities and many new players will step onto the European stage. This fresh wind is a great chance.

Commenting on the German European election results, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily states,“These results have hit the CDU hard and the SPD [Social Democratic Party of Germany] even harder. The SPD for the first time comes third in European elections… What makes things even worse is that the Greens have the youth vote on their side, whilst the SPD looks old.”

France

Most of the French reactions focus on President Macron’s party coming second with 22.41%, behind Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (which received 23.31%). Coverage also focuses on the rise of the Greens (who came third with 13.47% of votes) and the changes in the French political system.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said, “Tonight’s results confirm the dynamics of the first round of the last presidential election. The two political forces that the French have led more or less reproduce the 2017 scores. For my part, I welcome these results with humility. When you finish second you can’t say you won.”

Marine Le Pen said Macron had to draw “the right conclusions” and called for him to dissolve the National Assembly and call fresh elections.

In the press, an editorial in Le Monde daily argues that this election demonstrates a “profound political recomposition” in France where the landscape becomes dominated by the Macron – Le Pen duel, rather than the two major parties of the twentieth century, the Republicans and Socialists.

An opinion piece in business paper Les Echos notes that while Macron’s party came second in EP elections, “Neither the Left, still in pieces, nor the right of the Republican party, shipwrecked, are able to dispute En Marche’s leadership…There is no serious alternative to the reformist, liberal and European policy of Emmanuel Macron.” It adds,

Neither in France, nor in Brussels, will populists be able to lead…These parties have neither a solid alliance, nor a credible project.

The Catholic La Croix daily argues that while this was a “missed bet” for President Macron, the results do not “lead to an institutional crisis in France.” However, the President will have to “shed light on his actions,” using the resources at his disposal, including his majority in the French National Assembly.

Elsewhere, Le Figaro daily has conducted a survey about Macron’s participation in the EP campaign. It reveals that 71% of French voters think Macron should not have got involved, 63% think his second place is a result of his personal failure, and 72% believe he must change policy.

“The Palme d’Or award goes to … Marine Le Pen… while the special prize from the jury goes to Emmanuel Macron.”

Spain

As a continuation of April’s national elections, Prime Minister Sanchez’s Socialists came in first place with 32.8%, and had good results in local elections happening on the same day. The centre-right Popular Party lost four seats and ended with 20.1%, while far-right Vox managed to get 6.2%, a decline from the general election.

An article in Spanish daily El Pais, titled “Nationalists advance in key countries, but do not win power in the European Parliament” argues, “The rise of Eurosceptics has been mitigated in some countries such as Germany and neutralised in others such as Austria and the Netherlands, because of rising participation for the first time.”

El Mundo states, “The fragmentation of the vote initiates a period of negotiations to form alliances in the European Parliament. The EPP, the most voted group, must look for allies beyond the Social Democratic family. It is clear that bipartisanship that has governed the EU for 40 years will end.”

Italy

The right-wing Lega Party has consolidated its national and regional gains of the last few months by ending with 34.3%, while its coalition partner, the Five Star Movement, fell to third place with 17%. The centre-left Democratic Party came second with 23%. These results have suggested a shift within the populist coalition government in Rome – Lega are nominally the junior partner, having won more seats than the Five Stars in the last legislative election.

Deputy PM Matteo Salvini commented that Eurosceptics’ gains across big member states, specifically Italy, France and the UK, “are signs of a Europe that is changing,” adding,

I am counting on having allies everywhere to save the EU…to change its rules…We finally have to change after decades of bureaucrats and bankers’ rules.

The Five Stars’ Deputy PM, Luigi Di Maio, has conceded that elections did not go well for his party, but ruled out resigning or leaving the coalition government, adding, “The government contract will not change.”

An opinion piece in L’Espresso magazine describes results as “the triumph of the ferocious ideology of Matteo Salvini,” noting the fragility of the opposition, despite the PD’s gains. It explains,

In Italy there are no similar forces that exist in the rest of Europe and hold back the advance of the sovereigntists: the greens, the environmentalists, the young movements.

The centrist Il Foglio calls Italy the “sick man of Europe,” noting that the Italian anomaly is “economic, political and diplomatic.”

An editorial in Il Sole 24 Ore argues that Europe “must be relaunched,” warning that choices about the future of the EU must be made quickly as EP elections results mean “a more articulated European Parliament than the previous one, where any agreement will inevitably be increasingly difficult to reach.”

Greece

Greek EP results had an important effect for national politics, as PM Tsipras called for a snap general election after his ruling Syriza party lost with 24% to opposition party New Democracy, which received 33% of the  vote.

Tsipras said, “I will call national elections after the second round of regional elections next week to let the Greek people decide if they want us to continue with our plan to support the many or if they prefer the return to the dark era of austerity and the IMF – a past that we all lived through.” He also said the European election results for Greece did not match his expectations.

The New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis said, “It is obvious that the Greek people have withdrawn their confidence in this government…The Prime Minister must assume his responsibilities and the country must hold national elections at the soonest possible time.”

An opinion piece in the Kathimerini newspaper states that “this is a time of responsibility for both party leaders. Tsipras would cause even greater damage if he invests in the increasing polarisation of the political climate and buying votes, whilst the New Democracy leader has the opportunity to present a serious alternative for the country. But overall, a huge effort is needed to avoid a greater polarisation in a political environment that is already extremely polarised.”

In an opinion piece for capital.gr, the author suggests, “The big victory of New Democracy over Syriza in combination with their disastrous results in local and regional elections will lead to a complete shake-up of the political landscape in Greece, challenging the long-term survival of Syriza and Alexis Tsipras himself.”

 

Netherlands

There were unexpected results in the Netherlands, where Frans Timmermans’ Labour Party (PvdA) came first with 18.9%, and Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s party came in second with 14.6%. The far-right Forum for Democracy did worse than expected, gaining only three seats.

Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad comments that “the motivated voter has delivered a clear signal,” referring to the higher turnout, adding that “the projected gains for anti-European parties have remained limited.”

It adds that the Dutch result “will have a big effect on Dutch politics” as “a serious political psychological effect could have been felt if Forum for Democracy (FvD) had finished first.” It goes on to describe how Dutch PM Rutte’s VVD was “in panic” after the FvD won provincial elections earlier this year, leading to Rutte challenging the FvD leader to a debate. It also notes that “the confidence of the social democratic PvdA will increase”, following its victory in the EP elections.

 

Belgium

Belgium held triple elections on Sunday, in all of which the far-right Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) did well. The New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) came out first in European elections, with 13.47% of seats.

Belgian public broadcaster VRT highlights how “the EP elections reflect the trend in Belgium.” Most attention was given to national elections, which delivered big gains for the far right and far left on the respective Flemish and Francophone side of the linguistically divided country – complicating the formation of a new federal government. It adds, “the main factions of centre-right and social democrats are losing, but holding on” amid gains for populists, following the tripling of the number of EP seats by the Flemish nationalist Vlaams Belang and the strong performance of the far left PTB-PVDA.

Austria

Most Austrian attention was turned to the domestic political situation, including a no confidence vote in Chancellor Kurz’s government. Kurz’s ÖVP finished first with 34.6%, while the Social Democrats ended with 23.9% and the right-wing Freedom Party, recently tarnished by a corruption scandal, came third with 17.2%.

A piece by Austrian newspaper Die Presse tackles the question of why a third of young voters voted Green, noting that, “In Germany, Austria and France, the Greens and Liberals are more popular with young voters than with older people. Economic questions do not inspire the voters under 30 years old, their vote is motivated by questions about the environment, identity and freedom.”

A piece in Der Standard underlines that Austria is in a weak position regarding the selection of top EU jobs due to the government crisis in Vienna.

 

Ireland

Ireland held EP elections on the same day as local elections and a national referendum on reform of the divorce laws. Counting for the European elections was ongoing on Tuesday, with some seats still to be declared. Following the local election results, Ireland is said to be on “red alert” for a General Election this year as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he “can’t rule it out,” but it was not a prospect “in the next couple of days or weeks.”

Irish reactions have focused on the fragmentation of the political landscape in Europe and in particular the rise of the Greens.

The Irish Independent attributed the Greens’ success in part to the prominence of climate change campaigner Greta Thunberg, noting, “She’s forced climate change up the political agenda around the world, indirectly boosting Green Party candidates in many countries including Ireland, where a green wave has been washed over a moribund political system.”

The Irish Times argued that the rise of the Greens combined with a good election for the Liberals suggested that “a more diverse centre is taking shape – one that could affect the [European] Parliament’s positions not only on climate change but on economic policy and all the other quality-of-life issues, such as planning and urban living, that helped the Greens win big.”

The Irish Examiner noted, “It is as if Europeans had learned the back-to-the-future lessons offered by the incoherence and nastiness of the Trump presidency and the increasingly divisive chaos of Brexit. ”

On the subject of Brexit, the Irish Times writes, “The European Parliament elections have exposed Britain as more divided than ever about leaving the European Union, putting pressure on both main parties to adopt harder positions. But they present both the Conservatives and Labour with almost impossible dilemmas.”

 

Sweden

Despite a drop in popularity from 2014, the centre-left Swedish Social Democrats came first with 23.6%. Party leader and Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said, “I would have liked to have seen a better result and make gains. But this is a good result, we get five seats and maintain our position.”

The centre-right Moderates came second with 16.8%. The right-wing populist Sweden Democrats picked up an extra seat from 2014 and ended with 15.4%, despite a sexual harassment scandal dogging their campaign.

In contrast to other countries where the Greens did well, the Swedish Greens lost two of their four seats in the EP.

Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet notes,

In Sweden the wave of votes were blue – not green. In Greta Thunberg’s homeland all parties wish to be green.

The Expressen daily also notes, “It was expected to become the election where right-wing populists gained influence in the European Parliament but the results were quite different. They have gained votes compared to 2014, but did not gain enough to seriously be able to make things difficult for other parties in parliament.”

 

Denmark

The far-right Danish People’s Party lost three of its four seats, while Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmusse’s Venstre (Liberal) Party gained two seats – an encouraging sign for the governing party ahead of the general election on 5 June, where they face an uphill battle against the centre-left. Rasmussen said, “All signs suggest that we have had the best EU election ever.”

The broadcaster TV2 comments, “Out in Europe, the skeptics win – in Denmark it is just the opposite. Danes’ voices land on EU-friendly parties, while Europeans are more skeptical.”

 

Reactions to results in the UK and what they mean for Brexit

While Brexit dominated the campaign in the UK, most of the EU27 paid minimal attention to this issue. Below are a few reactions from European newspapers about the victory of the Brexit Party and the collapse of the Conservative Party in the UK.

Swedish newspaper Expressen: “A hard Brexit draws closer. Nigel Farage is the big winner in the UK with a party that he formed only last month. Yet another reminder of how quickly voters can change their minds.”

Italian La Stampa: “The election of the milkshake has completely shaken the politics of the UK. The banana and caramel smoothie poured on Nigel Farage by a demonstrator last Monday was not enough to stop the leader of the Brexit Party.”

French daily Le Figaro: “Europe has not finished with Brexit…Theresa May’s successor will have to work with Nigel Farage and his army of Europhobes in Strasbourg.”