Populists gains in EU elections fall below expectations

Steven Erlanger, The New York Times

Posted at May 27 2019 09:15 AM

Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party, at a rally in Saint-Raphael, France, March 15, 2017. Exit polls in 2019 across the 28 European Union member states that voted for the bloc’s parliament showed success for the National Rally party of Le Pen, one of the continent’s leading critics of the E.U. Le Pen called the result “a vote for France, and for the people.” Dmitry Kostyukov, The New York Times

BRUSSELS — Populists and nationalists seeking to make inroads in the European Parliament elections did not do as well as many traditionalists feared, exit polls indicated Sunday.

But if those polls bear out, the gains made by the populists and nationalists — combined with a strong performance of green parties — appear to have continued the weakening of Europe’s traditional mainstream parties.

The fear among supporters of the European Union has been that populists would begin to try to weaken the EU from the inside. Populists argue that their national needs are too often overlooked by the bloc.

The polls in France also suggest a difficult time ahead for President Emmanuel Macron of France, who has presented himself as the champion of European integration and a counterpoint those who wish to weaken it.

In his own country, the exit polls showed his slate for the Parliament being defeated by the National Rally party of Marine Le Pen, one of the continent’s leading critics of the EU. The defeat appeared to be by only a small margin, but it would be enough to deal a symbolic blow to the young president.

Le Pen called the result “a vote for France, and for the people.”

Turnout was expected to top 50% in France, significantly higher than the 42% of five years ago.

In Germany, where turnout was also high, the Greens did very well, becoming the main party on the left, while the Social Democratic Party did very badly, according to exit polls.

The largest party, the governing Christian Democrats, also lost some ground, while the far-right populists, the Alternative for Germany, were reported to have gotten about 11%. In the national elections of 2017, the party drew 12.6%.

This year’s European Parliament vote drew more interest than any of the bloc’s votes in the past decade. Observers looked to it to gauge the popularity of the various anti-immigration, anti-elite, Euroskeptic parties across the union.

In the individual member states, the results were seen as judgments on the parties in power, no more so than in major players like France, Germany, Italy and Poland.

Macron had put a lot of chips down on beating the far-right party led by Le Pen, which was once known as National Front and has been rebranded as National Rally. Critics believed the president invested too much energy in what was an essentially meaningless election in French national terms — however symbolic.

The German vote will be seen as a judgment on the center-left Social Democrats, on the far-right Alternative for Germany and on the new leader of the Christian Democrats, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who hopes to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Italy was being watched to see how well its deputy prime minister, the rollicking populist Matteo Salvini of the League, did against his coalition partners, the Five Star movement. The fate of the coalition appeared to be at stake. Salvini remains Europe’s champion proselytizer of the anti-immigrant far right.

For Austria, it was the first chance for voters to judge the breakup of the coalition of the center-right and far-right, after a mysterious sting operation forced the resignation of far-right leader Heinz-Christian Strache and his colleagues.

In Poland, the governing Law and Justice Party, considered populist by some, was being tested by a group of opposition parties banded together under the name European Coalition.

Britain was a special case, given its plans to leave the EU. The election was seen more as a judgment on the two main parties — the governing Conservatives and the opposition Labour — rather than any Continental issue.

Turnout to the EU parliamentary elections is historically low, and voters tend to use the five-year elections as a way to protest their national governments, much the way U.S. voters use the midterm elections. Most voters cast ballots on national issues, for national parties, which then gather into political groupings in the European Parliament.

Voters do not vote for those groupings, any more than they can vote directly for the person who will replace Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission president: That job that is filled by the heads of European governments and ratified by the Parliament.

Although the focus of the campaign was on the populist surge, at least two-thirds of the new Parliament is expected to be made up of pro-EU legislators. While the varying populists will try to vote as a bloc, they are not expected to be able to form a single grouping, as there are fervent differences among them on issues like Russia, regional aid and the distribution of migrants throughout the bloc.

The one thing the varying populists do agree on is gumming up the system, and they are bound to make consensus more difficult on future European budgets and legislation. This European Parliament will simply be messier and harder to control than before.


2019 New York Times News Service