EU still relevant but voters shake up the old guard

And the new EU parliament is set to be more fragmented than before.

By Jon Van Housen & Mariella Radaelli

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Published: Tue 28 May 2019, 8:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 28 May 2019, 10:41 PM

European voters showed they are more engaged than in decades as they went to the polls last week to elect the next EU parliament. It's the second-biggest exercise in democracy in the world following India.
And the new EU parliament is set to be more fragmented than before. The biggest takeaway is that a tidal wave of nationalist fervour never fully materialised. Though Eurosceptic and rightwing parties in Italy, France, Hungary and Poland made significant gains, so did the Greens in Germany, France and Britain. As well, pro-EU liberal forces gained ground.
Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said, "The big story is that the nationalist populists have not managed to turn this into a referendum on the EU. People like Bannon have failed."
Steve Bannon, the short-lived White House senior policy advisor, had vowed to lead the charge of populist forces that would reject EU solidarity in favour of nationalist causes.
Federico Petroni from Italy's geopolitics magazine Limes notes, "The rise of the nationalists was lower than expected and in any case completely uneven, so they are not able to create a compact coalition that could undermine the EU from within."
"With the obligatory rhetoric and the inevitable disputes, the Europhobes make extensive use of the Brussels rooms only for their own or their country's interests," he said.
According to Lluís Bassets, deputy director of El País newspaper in Spain, the 400 million citizens who voted in the weeklong polls prove that the European experiment in common governance still interests and "moves people".
The result is even more important in the context of "pessimism and uncertainty about the future of the union" and "divorce" with the United Kingdom, he said.
The election that will shape the next five years of EU policies did not bring a seismic change, but it did show major cracks in the status quo. Mainstream parties from the centre-left and centre-right lost votes, with some of their support going to not only nationalists but also environmentalists and pro-European Union liberals.
Right-wing populists fell short of expectations in Austria, the Netherlands and Denmark, while Germany's AfD party made only slight gains. Marine Le Pen's National Rally came first in France, beating President Emmanuel Macron's En Marche party, but En Marche is part of an EU coalition bloc that is able to wield more legislative influence.
While the Eurosceptic gains might not have been as dramatic as Bannon predicted, the election showed far-right populism is a force to be reckoned with over the next five years.
 "The rules are changing in Europe," said Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy's nationalist League party, which got the biggest share of the vote in his country at nearly 34 per cent. "A new Europe is born," he claimed.
Still part of the process, Britain's biggest vote went to Nigel Farage's Brexit Party with about a third of the total. The ruling Conservatives were relegated to fifth place at a dismal 9 per cent. 
And for the first time, traditional centre-left and centre-right parties will not have a majority in the European Parliament's 751-seat chamber.
The Social Democrats and the European People's Party (EPP), groups that have dominated for years, both lost more than 35 seats.
 "We are facing a shrinking centre of the European Union parliament," said Manfred Weber, chairman of the EPP. "From now on, those who want to have a strong European Union have to join forces."
With the exception of Spain, the socialists lost seats across Europe. "If you lose an election, if you lose seats, you have to be modest," said Frans Timmermans, a politician from the Netherlands who was the lead candidate of the Party of European Socialists. "We have lost seats and this means that we have to be humble."
In contrast, the Green group made big gains, most evident in Germany where they doubled their share to 21 per cent. Yet they still fell short of Angela Merkel's coalition parties that emerged on top.
Another group that took support from traditional parties was the pro-Europe, pro-business liberal centrists. Known as the ALDE, they increased their number of parliamentary seats from 68 to 109, though largely due to Macron's En Marche party joining them.
Some observers say the boost in support for the ALDE suggests that young people who grew up under the EU came out to support it. "When Europe is threatened, you have seen the youth mobilising to defend it," says Torreblanca. With more than a year to evaluate US President Donald Trump and Britain's Brexit struggles, voters in Europe appeared more careful about anti-establishment votes and showed their concern by turning out in large numbers. It was the biggest percentage turnout for an EU election in 40 years.
 "This is noteworthy," said Janis A. Emmanouilidis at the European Policy Centre, who termed the surge "remarkably higher".
And whatever the exceptions and complaints, it's clear Europeans still want the EU. It's still the best game going.
Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are editors at news agency in Milan

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