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Europe lurches to the right after EU elections, but center holds

Frustrated by their crisis-hit union, Europeans gave right-wing parties a big win in European Parliament elections ending Sunday. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz were hit the hardest.

BRUSSELS (CN) — Voters in the European Union's biggest countries gave conservatives and the far right decisive wins in bloc-wide European Parliament elections that ended Sunday, signaling a historic shift to the right.

This rightward swing was felt particularly in France and Germany, the chief pillars of the EU, with French President Emmanuel Macron's liberals suffering a stinging defeat to far-right rival Marine Le Pen, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz's Social Democrats plummeting to their worst result ever.

After his party's thrashing, Macron shocked European politics on Sunday night by announcing snap elections for the National Assembly, where his party does not hold a majority. But the move was a major gamble and could backfire by allowing Le Pen's National Rally to secure even more seats.

The European Parliament in Brussels on election night. (Lily Radziemski/Courthouse News)

Across much of Europe, conservative and far-right parties made gains and won elections in at least 17 of the EU's 27 member states. Still, power in Brussels will remain with the traditional centrist pro-EU forces.

In the lead-up to the election, opinion surveys showed that many Europeans felt frustration with their governments after years of crisis — waves of immigration, the coronavirus pandemic, the war in Ukraine, soaring inflation — and that they were looking to right-wing parties for solutions.

The clear winners were parties affiliated with the center-right European People's Party in the European Parliament, a result that likely will lead to Ursula von der Leyen, a party member, winning a second term as the European Commission president, the EU's chief executive.

The EPP, as the party is known, is projected to hold 186 seats in the 720-seat European Parliament, an increase of 10 seats from the last elections in 2019. Its biggest wins came in Germany, Spain and Poland.

The center-left Socialists and Democrats came in second and are on track to get 135 seats, four fewer than they held before. It was a solid showing for center-left parties, which are struggling across Europe. It won most of its seats in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Romania, making up for historic losses in Germany.

The EPP and Socialists and Democrats have ruled politics in Brussels ever since the EU came into existence in the wake of World War II. They are likely to form an informal grand coalition in the new parliament to keep the EU agenda of deeper integration among EU states and enlargement to add new countries moving forward.

The liberal camp, Renew, is set to remain the third-largest group in the parliament with 79 seats despite heavy losses, especially in France, where Macron's party won only 14.6% of the vote. Renew is projected to lose 23 seats in the European Parliament.

Combined, these three groups will hold more than 400 seats in the parliament and they are likely to join forces to command a majority with which to pass legislation, pick EU commissioners and set policy.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission and EPP, hugging Manfred Weber, vice president of the EPP, at the EPP's election night event in Brussels. (Lily Radziemski/Courthouse NEws)

In a speech Sunday night, von der Leyen pledged to work with other centrists to fend off a surging far right.

“Together with others we will build a bastion against the extremes from the left and right,” von der Leyen said. “We will stop them.”

“This election has given us two messages: First, there remains majority in the center for a strong Europe, and that is crucial for stability," von der Leyen said. "But it is also true that the extremes on the left and on the right have gained support, and this is why the result comes with great responsibility for the parties in the center.”

She added: “The world around us is in turmoil. Forces from the outside and the inside are trying to destabilize our societies, and they are trying to weaken Europe. We will never let that happen.”


But it remains possible that von der Leyen and her EPP may be interested in working with the far right in some policy areas, such as slowing down the Green Deal climate package and taking more steps to stop the flow of migrants into the EU.

In the run-up to the election, von der Leyen came under heavy criticism for remaining open to work with far-right Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and her European Conservatives and Reformists group in the European Parliament.

With this election, Meloni and Le Pen consolidated their positions as the leaders of Europe's far-right movement. As a whole, radical-right parties will hold about a quarter of the seats in the European Parliament, though it remains unlikely that this fragmented side of the political spectrum will be able bridge differences to form a single bloc. Radical-right parties made gains in 21 of the EU's 27 nations.

In Italy, Meloni's Brothers of Italy won with 28.8% of the vote, giving them 24 seats in the European Parliament. It was a strong showing for Meloni, though she had hoped to reach 30%, and it strengthened her hand in exerting influence on EU affairs.

In the European Parliament, Meloni's Conservatives and Reformists are the fourth-biggest party with 73 seats, four more than before.

But it was Le Pen's National Rally in France, led by Jordan Bardella, that proved to be the biggest far-right winner in Europe.

It won 31.4% of the vote, more than double Macron's liberals, and obtained 30 seats in the European Parliament, the most of any party in the EU. Only Germany's center-right Christian Democrats came close with 29 seats after they won the elections in Germany with about 30% of the vote.

The huge win for Le Pen gave her far-right bloc in the European Parliament, Identity and Democracy, a big boost. It will hold 58 seats, the fifth most in the parliament.

The far-right surge played out in Germany, too, where the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, received nearly 16% of the vote and 15 seats in the European Parliament.

This success came even after the party was embroiled in a number of scandals, including charges that Maximilian Krah, its top candidate for the European elections, was paid by Russia to spread Kremlin propaganda.

Shortly before the elections, Le Pen kicked the AfD out of the Identity and Democracy group when Krah said he would “never say that anyone who wore an SS uniform was automatically a criminal.” Krah was booted from the AfD's parliamentary delegation too, but he won a seat in the European Parliament regardless.

It remains possible that AfD will be allowed to rejoin Le Pen's group, which would make it as big as Meloni's Conservatives and Reformists.

Elsewhere, the far right won the election in Austria, where the Freedom Party edged out the center-right Austrian People's Party. In its first-ever European elections win, the Freedom Party took 25.7% of the vote.

In neighboring Hungary, far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's Fidesz party won with 44.6% of the vote, but that was a poor result compared to past European elections. Orbán is facing a political challenge from Péter Magyar, a former insider turned rival who has accused the government of widespread corruption. Magyar's center-right party, Tisza, won 29.7% of the vote.

Meanwhile, Europe's left-leaning parties had mixed results.

In Italy, the center-left Democratic Party, led by the 39-year-old Elly Schlein, celebrated a solid second-place finish with 24.1% of the vote. Under Schlein, the Democratic Party has reestablished itself as the main force in opposition to the right in Italy.

In Spain, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez's center-left Socialists lost to the center-right Popular Party, signaling potential trouble for Sánchez and his fragile minority government.

But the worst result for the center left was in Germany, where Scholz's Social Democrats only got 13.9% of the vote, the party's worst result ever.

"We have to do our work and ensure that our country makes progress and becomes more modern, ensuring that support grows so that we can present results and have the trust of citizens at the next federal elections," Scholz told reporters on Monday, as reported by Deutsche Welle, a German public news service. He acknowledged the results were bad for the three parties in his coalition — Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats — and said there would be no return to "business as usual."

His government dismissed calls from opposition parties to hold snap elections like Macron had done.

The center-left group, the Socialists and Democrats, indicated it was ready to work with other centrists on reinforcing the bloc's military strength, which has overtaken other issues as the EU's top priority in the wake of the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East.

“We have a war in Europe. Europe needs to build up its security, and not only external, but also internal security," said Nicolas Schmit, the group's candidate to become the next EU chief. "We have to face a lot of challenges and we have to do it now in a democratic way, where parties show their ability to find the solutions citizens expect from us.”

Along with Macron's liberals, green parties were the big losers, a sign of growing backlash against the EU's ambitious Green Deal climate package.

In the European Parliament, the Greens were projected to lose about 18 seats and fall to 53 parliamentarians. Most of the losses came in Germany and in France.

“Tonight’s result is certainly not a victory for the Greens,” said Philippe Lamberts, the Greens group leader, speaking to reporters in Brussels. “Despite our disappointing results tonight, we the Greens stand ready to take our responsibility. If we want our planet to remain habitable for human beings, the Green Deal must stand.”

In Nordic countries, green and left-wing parties bucked the negative trend and did better than expected.

Political analysts were in disagreement about how significant of a change in direction for the EU these elections will turn out to be.

“While these far-right, anti-establishment parties secured approximately 25% of the seats, they won’t be able to unite and call the shots,” said Alberto Alemanno, a European policy expert at HEC Paris Business School. “Instead, the pro-EU majority — which has historically been running the EU over the past 50 years — holds.”

Simon Hix, a political researcher with the European University Institute, said the results will mean changes ahead.

“In sum: the most right-wing European Parliament ever elected, and a major shift of power away from 'progressive Europe,'” Hix said. “It's going to be a bumpy ride.”

Nicolai von Ondarza, a European politics expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs agreed, commenting: “European politics will get more polarizing, more politicized and more populistic.”

Courthouse News reporters Lily Radziemski and Cain Burdeau are based in the European Union.

Follow @cainburdeau Follow @lilyradz
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