Brussels, Belgium – It had been portrayed as a day of reckoning between pro-European and anti-European forces – between those who want greater integration, and those who want to retreat into their nation states.
The European Parliament election results, however, tell the story of a much more fragmented European Union, where mainstream parties on both the left and the right are losing voters’ confidence – a trend that reflects European national politics in the past few years.
Nationalist parties took home impressive results in countries such as Italy, France, Belgium, Hungary and Poland.
“The result was mixed for nationalists as they are for other forces,” Doru Frantescu, CEO of Brussels-based think-tank Votewatch Europe, told Al Jazeera.
“However, they did much better than five years ago,” Frantescu added. “The most important thing now is whether this trend will continue in the next few years or not. These elections are not the end of European electoral history.”
Turmoil in Europe
Italy’s League and France’s Rassemblement Nationale (National Rally) topped the polls in their respective countries, with Marine Le Pen’s National Rally narrowly defeating President Emmanuel Macron.
The vote came after months of Yellow Vest protests in France, which began in opposition to fuel tax rises and turned into a wider backlash against Macron’s government. The president responded with tax cuts and pension rises for the poorest.
In Italy, the League decimated its ally in government, the Five Star Movement (M5S), nearly exactly reversing the balance of power the two held when they first entered into a coalition a year ago.
The party led by Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini, secured 34 percent of the vote, while the M5S lagged behind at 17 percent. The Social Democrats (PD) re-emerged as the main opposition force with 22.7 percent of the share after a sound defeat in the general election last year.
In Poland, the ruling PiS party defeated the pro-European coalition by seven percentage points, while in Hungary, Viktor Orban’s anti-migrant Fidesz party finished far ahead of the opposition with 52.3 percent of the vote.
Fidesz was suspended – but not expelled – from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) last March, and spearheads the cause of “illiberal democracy” in Europe.
In Belgium, far-right Flemish separatist party Vlaams Belang made huge gains as the country held a federal election as well.
In the United Kingdom, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party took the lead with more than 30 percent of the vote.
The two largest political groups in the European Parliament, the EPP and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), both lost more than 30 seats each.
They remain the two main forces in the European Parliament, with the EPP still in the lead – it currently holds all three top jobs in the European Union – but no longer holds a combined majority.
A new centrist group that includes the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and French President Macron’s Renaissance coalition won the most new seats and is set to become a force to be reckoned with in the new parliament. They are being seen as the kingmakers for any majority.
The Greens also made huge gains, particularly thanks to their performance in Germany, winning 18 extra seats across the continent.
Salvini and Le Pen announced earlier this year they intended to set up a new group in the European Parliament, with Salvini emerging as the unofficial figurehead. A group of 11 far-right parties from across Europe rallied alongside Italy’s codeputy prime minister in Milan on May 18.
Their electoral results, however, have been less than impressive.
Salvini’s ally in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders of the far-right Party for Freedom, didn’t reach the electoral threshold and will have no seats in the new parliament.
The country’s new nationalist outfit, the Forum for Democracy, led by 36-year-old Thierry Baudet, won three seats – but it did nowhere near as well as expected. After coming first in provincial elections earlier this year, the party was tipped to be the main contender to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Instead, it lags in fifth place. In the European Parliament, it’s part of the Eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group.
In Austria, the Austrian Freedom Party (FPO), only managed to come third with 17 percent of the vote and three seats in the ECR group, with a campaign marred by the “Ibiza-gate”.
FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache was forced to resign as Austria’s vice chancellor last week after he was filmed offering lucrative government contracts in exchange for campaign support to a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz met the same fate on Monday, when he faced a no-confidence vote.
In Denmark, the Danish People’s Party suffered a heavy defeat compared with the last election in 2014, when it took more than one-quarter of the vote. It slid to just 10.7 percent, taking one seat in the ECR group.
“I talked to Orban, who is above 40 percent, to Le Pen, who is the first party in France, and I am looking to talk to Farage: it’s a vote that will allow us to change Europe,” Salvini told an Italian TV station on Monday. He showed up at his press conference on election night clutching a set of Catholic rosary beads – as he did during his “Europe of the nations” rally in the final days of the campaign.
“I think that [Salvini] will first try to show the EPP that he and his party are needed to get things done, starting with the appointment of an EPP candidate for the European Commission,” Votewatch Europe’s Frantescu said.
“The EPP has to think of their potential allies in all directions. Salvini has showed he would like to portray himself as an important ally for the EPP in the areas where the EPP cannot look to the left for support, such as international trade, some of the regulations of the internal market, and even when it comes to migration.”
The lead candidate for the presidency of the European Commission, Manfred Weber, told journalists on Sunday “there is no chance for any cooperation with extremists from the left and from the right”.
However, some analysts argue they already appear to be within their ranks.
While the candidate for the socialist group Frans Timmermans called for a coalition to come together around a single programme, majorities in the European Parliament are normally formed on an issue-by-issue basis.
“One of the potential concrete impacts would be to restrict even more of any kind of common migration policy that the EU might have,” Sarah Wolff, director of the Centre for European Research at Queen Mary University in London, told Al Jazeera.
“There are geographical divisions among [nationalist populist] parties, but in general they will want more restrictive migration policies,” she added.
“We should consider budget as well. These groups might think that the EU is too expensive, leading to a reduction of the EU’s budget for the next couple of years.”