European elections 2019: Voters turn to populists and the Greens

Far-right poised to be a disruptive influence in next European Parliament

Nigel Farage's Brexit Party made huge gains in the European election, riding a wave of anger at the failure of Prime Minister Theresa May to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union. Video: Reuters


Far-right parties are poised to be a disruptive influence in the next European Parliament after elections that stemmed, but did not halt, the rise of populism.

Two of the standard-bearers of the right, Italy’s Matteo Salvini and the UK’s Nigel Farage, won resounding endorsements. Exit polls indicated that Mr Salvini had taken his League party’s seat tally from five to 15, while early counts had Mr Farage’s Brexit Party on 32 per cent of the vote in the UK.

With a projected estimate of about 176 of the new parliament’s 751 seats, the far-right groups will be in a position to wield considerable influence, though without anything like a decisive majority.

Seat tallies for the parties remained estimates late on Sunday night based on pre-election polling and exit polls. And from Monday the process of reforming and realigning groups will begin to take place.

MEPs’ hopes of a resounding mandate for a candidate to present to EU leaders as their next European Commission president failed to materialise. The centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) lost seats, although it outperformed pre-election estimates, but its candidate for commission president – or spizenkandidat – Manfred Weber, saw his own Bavarian CSU achieve its worst result. 

With heads of government looking for an excuse not to appoint him, his chances have not improved.

The prospects of commission vice-president Frans Timmermans will, however, have been boosted by his Labour Party’s (PvDA) poll-topping performance in The Netherlands, where its near extinction in 2014 was put firmly behind it with a vote of 18 per cent, three points ahead of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy of prime minister Mark Rutte.  

But projections suggest Mr Timmermans’s best hope of a Socialist, Liberal, Green, hard left alliance will fall just short of a parliament majority.

The elections also saw the parliament’s Socialist group (S&D) lose seats in what were once its heartlands of Germany, France and Italy, although it made significant gains in Spain.

The Greens, notably in Germany, where their support increased by over 20 percentage points, and France, up by 12 points, saw strong gains.

The EPP, to which Fine Gael is affliated, has lost its predominant position in the parliament although it was estimated on Sunday night to remain the largest group with about 173 seats.

Among the strong performers on the populist and far-right fringe were the German Alternativ für Deutschland (10 per cent), up three points on its 2014 figures, although down on its 2017 general election breakthrough vote. Marine Le Pen in France took first place on 23.3 per cent, just ahead of Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche. And the Flemish far-right in Belgium took substantial votes off the mainstream nationalists.

In Austria, chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who fired his far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) coalition partners only a matter of days ago, saw Austrian People’s Party take a dramatic step forward, boosting its 2014 vote by over 7 percentage points to 34. Remarkably, however, the FPÖ seems, rather Trump-like to have a most tolerant base, losing only a couple of percentage points.

Exit polls suggest the anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party will lose half its four seats.

Voter engagement across the EU appears to have significantly improved with estimates suggesting substantial increases in turnout recorded in The Netherlands, France, Spain, Denmark, Romania and Hungary. Turnout is estimated at 52 per cent for the EU27. It had declined consistently since 1979, in 2014 reaching only 42.6 per cent. Ireland was one of the few which saw turnout decline, in its case by close to 3 percentage points.