Though the biggest headlines of election night may have been of the Le Pen and Salvini victories, the story across Europe is that voters have mobilised in favour of change. A high turn-out in the European Parliament elections has resulted in a surge for smaller parties, notably greens and liberals, which has effectively countered the rise of far-right parties – preventing them from the kind of sweeping successes in the European elections that were predicted earlier this year.
Below are the views from our capitals, along with several additional guest contributions, exploring the results from their national perspectives.
VIEW FROM BERLIN – THE CENTRE IN DECLINE
The German centre is in a continued decline. The governing parties in Berlin lost massively; CDU (with the Bavarian CSU) lost 7 percent, while the SPD hemorrhaged 11 percent. Tensions are likely to increase between the two “Grand Coalition” parties, now that they do not even represent half of the electorate.
The CDU is in trouble, despite being the largest party. The Conservatives, now below 30 percent, fell entirely due to the weak CDU performance. The CSU (home of Spitzenkandidat Manfred Weber) gained 1 point whereas CDU lost 7 points. The AKK factor is evidently weak. The CDU’s nervousness will grow: in two of the three East German state elections to be held in the autumn, the right–wing AfD has been polling stronger.
Panic is spreading among the SPD membership. Chairwoman Andrea Nahles is under increasing pressure after her party was outperformed by the Greens and lost 11 percent. The climate issue mobilised plenty of voters and proved pivotal to the election’s outcome. The SPD, despite holding the keys to the Federal Ministry for the Environment failed at setting the agenda on this question.
Among other causes for concern is the inconvenient truth that the AfD is now the leading party in the state of Brandenburg — where the incumbent SPD government is now looking increasingly under threat – and the fact that the Greens have taken first place in the traditional SPD stronghold — Berlin.
VIEW FROM WARSAW – THE OUTLIER
Law and Justice (PiS, ECR) emerged victorious. A high turnout coupled with an extraordinary degree of polarisation made Poland an outlier, bucking the wider European trends, namely those of party system fragmentation and voter volatility. The two main electoral lists consisting on the one hand of the nationally governing Eurosceptic PiS, and on the other, the pro-European opposition known as the European Coalition (KE, EPP+ALDE+S&D+G/EFA) received almost 85 percent of the total votes cast (45.3 percent and 38.3 percent, respectively). The largely frozen party system thawed up enough space for just one minor party — the progressive Wiosna (Spring, S&D) — led by Robert Biedroń (6 percent) which barely passed the threshold. Openly anti-European voices were marginalised, with far-right Konfederacja (4.6 percent), falling short of the threshold.
The European Coalition failed to beat PiS despite record turnout (43 percent, up from 23.8 percent in 2014), suggesting limits to its electoral strategy, as well as signifying an effective mobilisation of conservative electorate by the government, possibly aided by the Catholic Church. PiS managed to combine a nominally pro-European stance with a deeply conservative, Europe-of-nations message and will form the fourth largest national party in the European Parliament. With 45 percent support, PiS received the best result any party in Poland has ever had since 1989. The party benefited from the buoyant economy, its generous social policy programs and its control of the public media. Pro-European forces failed to present an equally compelling vision of Europe and now face the task of redefining their strategy to avoid a defeat in this autumn’s parliamentary elections.
The results offer no obvious solutions for a pro-European majority and a shake-up of the opposition leadership and coalition arrangements is likely.
VIEW FROM MADRID – RETURN OF BORRELL
The big story in Spain is the triumph of the Spanish Socialists led by Josep Borrell. With 32.8 percent of the vote, and 20 seats thusly secured, the Spanish socialists became the largest constituent party of the European Social-democrats, ahead of the German SPD. The second largest delegation in the European Social Democrats will be composed of the 19 newly elected Italian socialists, which will push the envelope by rebalancing the SD Group and attuning it to themes which are dear to the South, like EMU completion, more social policy initiatives and progressive migration policies.
Borrell’s strong mandate open lots of possibilities for him: perhaps his experience in foreign affairs might land him the job of High Representative?
Of significance also is the defeat of both the far–right and far-left. VOX, which in the general election held last month surged to 10.3 percent, has lost half of its votes, receiving a meagre 6.3 percent, correlating to 3 MEPs. The pro–communist left incarnated by Podemos and IU did poorly too; receiving 10.5 percent of the vote, down from 18 percent in five years prior. Podemos’ bad results at the European, regional and municipal elections makes it less than they will enter the next government led by Pedro Sánchez and opens a leadership crisis around Pablo Iglesias. This all means that now Catalan secessionists are the dominant populist party in Spain.
Finally, Albert Rivera from Ciudadanos (ALDE) has not managed to beat the Conservative Party (EPP). He will now be in the uncomfortable position of explaining to his European colleagues why he is favoring regional and municipal governments together with a far-right party like VOX. Thanks to Ciudadanos and VOX, PP’s new leader, Casado, survives despite heavy losses.
VIEW FROM ROME – SALVINI'S BIG WIN
The Italian picture as of today is well-defined, although still complicated. Salvini is the big winner with 34.3 percent of votes, and the 5 Star Movement is the big loser with 17.1 percent: the former gained 50 percent of votes compared to the 2018 election, and the latter lost 50 percent. The ‘half winner’ is the Democratic Party: now the second national party, with 22.7 percent, but it gained only 4-5 percentage points compared to 2018.
The big news Salvini plans to bring to Europe is that Italy, with EP elections, now has a more rightist government, a dynamic not largely reflected in Europe though with some exceptions — Poland and Hungary. Additionally, the potential grouping Salvini may join in the EP might count between 100-150 MEPs, a number not relevant enough to influence and re-shape EU politics as he has promised he will do.
The real political challenge for Salvini now is to transform himself into a European leader, not a national one any longer, to prove he can be a credible interlocutor for Europe and to find common political grounds with other European leaders, namely Le Pen, Farage and Orban, who he sees as allies. The reform of migration management and of EU fiscal policies will be at the core of his political strategy for Europe and much of his success will depend on how he will manage to create European alliances to serve his purposes and objectives.
Prime Minister Conte, formally of the 5 Star Movement, will have a hard role to play with no real strong political leverage and no clear political strategy and ideas on Italy and for Italy, when meeting his colleagues on 28 May.
VIEW FROM PARIS – KINGMAKING
In France, Le Pen’s National Rally made it into the headlines, as it finished ahead of Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance on Sunday night. Although the two ended up with less than a one-point difference, the extreme-right’s victory is bad news for the French president, as Le Pen made the election a referendum about Macron in an attempt to surf the Yellow Vests’ waves. The fact that the turnout bounced up, from 42 percent in 2014 to 51 percent (i.e. over the 2017 legislative elections’ turnout), added salt to the wound.
But Macron will find ways to console himself. First, his domestic majority remains stable, and he can still resort to the age-old French midterm tactic of a cabinet reshuffle (rumoured since last winter). Second, his EU strategy worked. With the EPP and S&D losing absolute majority in the European Parliament, the ALDE + group Macron wants to help build is where the French president wanted it to be: in a position to play a pivot role. Renaissance’s 21 seats make them a major force in this new group, and they already claimed their kingmaking position by denying the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat ambition to preside over the Commission. Macron has also already started to construct a kingmaker position for himself in the European Council, as shown by his outreach toward Socialist and Mediterranean leaders such as Spain’s Sanchez and Portugal’s Costa, but also with other peers like Bulgaria’s Borisov and the Netherlands’ Rutte.
VIEW FROM SOFIA – PRO-EUROPEAN VOTERS
The election campaign in Bulgaria was clearly a sign of prevalence of the pro-European votes and voices. It had the potential to develop into a race between Eurosceptics as almost all political parties had developed a Eurosceptic undertone. The leadership of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the main opposition, had planned an anti-European campaign; the nationalists, part of the government, announced the objective to fight European values, and in the main governing party GERB there were eurosceptic voices attempting to shape the agenda. This scenario did not occur.
In the course of the campaign, pushed by pro-European attitudes of the vast majority of Bulgarians, the tone and substance of the messages changed, and the anti-European wings in the parties were weakened.
GERB (EPP) ended up basing its campaigning on a pro-European tone and despite the huge corruption scandals got seven (out of 17) seats in the EP (although with 100,000 votes less). On the BSP (S&D) list, its former pro-European leader Stanishev, now head of PED, was moved from fifth to second position by voters’ preferences. The most Eurosceptic player, the Bulgarian partner of Marie Le Pen and Salvini, Mareshki and his party Volya failed in passing the threshold. The nationalist VMRO (ECR) however did get two seats, thus sustaining the status quo.
The turnout in Bulgaria was lower that for the previous EP elections (around 30 percent). Bulgarians still think that the EU is far away and that they cannot impact it – so they did not particularly want to punish the government or encourage the opposition. The physical contraction of the electoral body has also played a role.
VIEW FROM LONDON – DISILLUSIONMENT
The major takeaway from the UK’s participation in the EU elections is that the country is as divided as ever and is thoroughly disillusioned with the way the two major parties have handled Brexit. The Labour Party came in just third place, with only 14 percent of the votes, and the governing Conservative Party came in a miserable fifth place with just under 9 percent. Parties in favour of Remain and Leave took roughly half of the votes each, and majorities can be found against a hard Brexit, against the current deal, and probably in favour of a second referendum.
Though the UK’s attention was rather more on the Conservative Party leadership contest than on the European Parliament election itself. Theoretically these elections have no impact on the nature of Brexit, and the UK was confused as to whether and why the country was taking part until the last minute; there was still a slight increase in the participation rate compared to 2014 levels.
The other big winners were the Green party at 11 percent – a testament among other things to the recent visit of Greta Thunberg to the UK. Following her visit, our polls – carried out by YouGov – showed that the majority of UK respondents found climate change to be the biggest threat facing Europe. Another development was a big increase in support for the Liberal Democrats who scored 19 percent of the vote and came in second place only to the Brexit Party with 32 percent.
What will all this mean for the EU? Currently a left bloc alliance looks like a possible majority in the new Parliament involving the Socialists, GUE, ALDE and the Greens plus ALDE: but the strong UK showing from the Lib Dems and the Greens are important.
On the far right, we can expect the emboldened Brexit Party, the clear leaders in this election in the UK to use their platform on the floor of the EP as a megaphone directed more at London than the rest of Europe, but also to support any wrecking tactics from Salvini’s new alliance or an ECR increased in its Euroscepticism (if for example Fidezs and PiS join the group).
But given their – theoretically – limited life span of six months in the new EP, we should not expect UK MEPs to play a shaping role of any sort in the EU’s next era.
Non-ECFR capitals in the spotlight:
VIEW FROM BRATISLAVA – A TURNING POINT
The Progressive Slovakia and SPOLU coalition (PS&SPOLU) won Sunday’s European parliamentary elections with 20.11 percent of the vote. These two parties were also behind the success of the newly elected first female president of the country, Zuzana Caputova, several months ago. Turnout in Slovakia increased by almost 9 percent since the last election, but it is still the lowest in the EU.
Overall, Slovak voters are rather pro-EU. Debates about the European Union are slowly penetrating the national discourse, and in this sense, EU policies are becoming part of the Slovak “political mainstream”.
Some commentators argue that these elections are a turning point in Slovak politics since the governing party Direction (SMER-SD) lost its first election since 2002 with 15.72 percent of the vote. PS & SPOLU were able to mobilise voters mostly in large cities – younger, liberal and pro-EU citizens. But if the coalition wants to become a force to be reckoned with, they will have to attract countryside voters lest they turn into a two-election-cycle-party, fighting for the same voters as all the other parties in in the country.
There clearly is a popular yearning for a Green Party in Slovakia. Two out of four candidates from the PS & SPOLU are environmental activists, and protection of the environment ranked high on the agenda in pre-election debates.
The far-right Kotleba – People’s Party of Slovakia – is still gaining momentum since their success in national elections in 2016. They have come second in the polls in national surveys for several months in a row. The nationalistic Slovak National Party (SNS) and the populists We Are Family (Sme Rodina), both of whom partnered with Le Pen and Salvini, failed in these elections, with slight gains of 4.09 and 3.23 percent respectively.
VIEW FROM ATHENS – ND BY A LANDSLIDE
It is true that in Greece, European elections usually have a largely domestic character. This year, amidst unprecedented polarisation and excessive government handouts, the elections became a sort of referendum, framed by the Prime Minister himself as a vote of confidence in his policies and his personal standing.
New Democracy (ND) and opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis won by a landslide. The gap between New Democracy and SYRIZA is the widest between the first two competing parties since the first European elections back in 1981. SYRIZA was also crushingly defeated in the first round of local elections. New Democracy has solidified its lead in almost every Greek region, including Attica and Central Macedonia, the two largest ones, as well as in most municipalities, including Athens.
Alexis Tsipras’s policies and narratives have been completely delegitimised. On the other hand, New Democracy’s percentages most probably secure a clear majority mandate in the upcoming general elections. However, in case New Democracy does not achieve such a majority, centre-left Pasok-led party (KINAL), which performed worse than expected, will be the regulator of Greece’s political landscape, as it will have to decide whether to support a stable ND-led government or to keep a stance of neutrality, pushed by its leftist anti-ND fraction. What is certain is that SYRIZA’s strategic goal is to form the only centre-left pole in post-austerity Greece, thus plundering KINAL is SYRIZA’s primary strategic interest.
VIEW FROM COPENHAGEN – RED-GREEN AND PRO-EU
The Danish election results run counter to the nationalist, inward-looking anti-EU narrative that has overwhelmed western media for quite a few years. The winners of the Danish EU election were those who proclaimed that challenges can only be solved at the European level, who called for climate action now, and those who hoped for a more solidary, sustainable and left-winged approach to politics.
The election result also showcased the highest ever voter turnout in the history of EU elections, where especially young voters from the major cities came out to vote in droves.
The losers of the election were the voices of the anti-EU parties, in particular the nationalist, anti-immigration Danish People’s Party that suffered a heavy defeat. Instead, the right-wing votes have moved to the Liberal, and pro-European party, which doubled its mandates. The cross-party anti-EU list, ‘the People’s movement against the EU’ lost its one seat in the Parliament for the first time since the campaign platform was established back in 1972.
Voter turnout was 66 percent, setting a record in Danish EU elections. In 2014, voter turnout was 56.3 percent. The red-green left-wing bloc received 57.4 percent of the vote, an improvement compared to its scarcer share in 2014, where it mustered 44.7 percent of the votes.
VIEW FROM BUDAPEST – TIME TO STOP IMITATING ORBAN
At a recent lecture, Ivan Krastev said that these days political success means a politician and his politics are imitated. In the last years, Viktor Orban was the most imitated politician in Europe, with significant influence beyond Hungary’s borders and successful alliances around his anti-migration politics in East and West.
Last night, his’s Fidesz party won the European election in Hungary with 53 percent of the vote. Still, they can’t be happy.
The election showed that Fidesz reached its maximum ability to mobilise its voters. What made the government party such a strong campaigner was the extraordinary disparity of financial resources between them and the other Hungarian parties, the reckless media mobilisation, and the fact that they did not have to face a serious political challenger. After Fidesz’s third victory in 2018, a surprising realignment happened among the fragmented opposition parties which was on display yesterday. The Socialist Party and Jobbik were seriously defeated, while the Democratic Coalition and the young Momentum Party could successfully collect the votes of the left and the liberal centre.
This situation will change the game at the municipal elections in autumn 2019, an important race for the opposition to demonstrate more leadership in the future.
VIEW FROM AMSTERDAM – TRIUMPH OF SOCIAL DEMOCRATS
The social democrats (Partij van de Arbeid) gained 6 seats and are now back from the serious defeat incurred in the national elections two years ago. Most analyses point out that this is mainly due to the ‘Frans Timmermans’ effect. Timmermans is better known than any other Dutch EP candidate, his home region (Limburg) voted massively for him and has ‘statesman’ image.
The liberal conservative VVD of Prime Minister Mark Rutte gains one seat, from three to four seats. This might be the result of a television debate with Forum for Democracy leader Thierry Baudet the evening before the elections.
The arguably most pro-European party, the progressive liberal D66, saw a very bad result. D66 went from four to two seats. They were rather invisible in the election campaign, and same goes for Green Left, which lost one seat (from three to two).
Forum for Democracy saw big gains (from zero to three seats), but not as much as they had anticipated and hoped for. Moreover, Forum took away voters from the PVV. PVV can claim only one seat when Brexit materializes. Until then, it has lost all four seats.
The Socialist Party (SP), a leftist populist and Eurosceptic party, lost both seats and does not return to the EP; the Christian democratic party loses one seat (from five to four); the party for the elderly (50Plus) gained one seat (from zero to one); the animal party gained one seat (from zero to one).
VIEW FROM BUCHAREST – PARADIGM SHIFT
The European elections have delivered a decisive pro-European vote, but also a heavy blow to the mainstream political class. The results see the ruling Social-Democrats (successors to the pre-1989 Communist Party) lose their position as the dominant political party for the first time after 1989. In previous elections, whenever they lost, they either lost to an electoral alliance or, a single time in 2007, to a splinter from the same trunk, former strongman president Băsescu’s Democrat Party, three years into his influential first term.
This time the Social Democrats have been brought down largely by their own hubris. Elections follow two years of massive protests caused by the Social Democratic Party's (PSD) attempt to recentralise unchecked power over the institutions (especially the justice system, which finally sent party leader Liviu Dragnea to jail for corruption the day after elections), to roll back anticorruption reforms, and push a nationalistic, sovereignist, anti-EU message, right in the midst of Romania’s exercise of the EU Council presidency. The protest vote toppled the Social Democrats, backed a referendum proposed by the president, which essentially called for the independence of the judiciary, but also returned an exceptional result (a very close third place, less than a percentage point from the PSD) for the alliance of two new parties, USR and PLUS.
This pro-European, centrist political force is made up of professionals with little to no political experience, many of whom left well-paying jobs in Brussels or in multinationals to challenge the traditional political class, perceived as corrupt and self-interested. Undoubtedly, they, as well as the winner (the National Liberal Party) owe their success to people’s desire for change more than to their own policy coherence, but the bottom-up pressure is so strong this time that the PSD will find it hard to make a comeback.
The content was contributed by Piotr Buras, Teresa Coratella, Susi Dennison, Vassilis Gavalas, Josef Janning, Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, Andrzej Mendel-Nykorowycz, Matej Navrátil, Christine Nissen, Oana Popescu, Zsuzsanna Szelényi, Daniel Stefanov, Vessela Tcherneva, Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, Tara Varma, and Niels N.J.G. van Willigen.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.