European Parliament elections: 5 takeaways from the results

Analysis: Sunday's results represent a seismic rejection of the traditional ruling parties across the continent.
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Supporters of France's far-right National Rally party celebrate in Paris on Sunday.Thibault Camus / AP

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By Alexander Smith

LONDON — The dust has settled on the world's second largest democratic exercise, a continent-wide vote that has left Europe's political landscape reshaped.

Last week, some 373 million citizens across 28 countries took part in elections for the European Parliament, which makes laws that bind the political and economic bloc. The results rolled in on Sunday night.

Far-right populists had some wins, but it wasn't quite the dramatic, widespread surge seen in recent elections at the national and local level across the continent.

What is clear is that the mainstream parties from the center-left and center-right hemorrhaged votes, with much of their support going to a fragmented collection of environmentalists and pro-European Union liberals.

Here are five key takeaways.

1. The far-right surge never quite came

Steve Bannon, the former adviser to President Donald Trump, called for these elections to be a referendum endorsing his right-wing populist vision for Europe. But while there were some victories for this camp, the full-blown tsunami that some predicted failed to materialize.

Right-wing populists fell short of expectations in Austria, the Netherlands and Denmark, while Germany's AfD party made only slight gains.

Even in France, where Marine le Pen's National Rally came first, beating President Emmanuel Macron's En Marche party, its provisional vote share was down on the last European Parliament elections in 2014.

"The big story is that the nationalist populists have not managed to turn this into a referendum on the E.U.," said Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a Brussels-based think tank. "People like Bannon have failed."

That said, while the gains might not have been as dramatic as some forecast, the election arguably cemented far-right populism as a European force that isn't going away soon. Such parties are often anti-migrant, anti-Muslim and anti-E.U., or at least wish to radically reshape the bloc from within.

There were clear victories for the right in Poland, Hungary and Italy. "The rules are changing in Europe," said Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy's far-right League party which got around 34 percent of the vote there. "A new Europe is born."

Britain's Brexit Party was also victorious, securing around one-third of the vote and relegating the ruling Conservatives to fifth place at a dismal 9 percent. However, the U.K. should perhaps be seen as a special case due to the country's protracted and messy attempts to leave the European Union.

2. The collapse of the mainstream

For the first time, the traditional center-left and center-right parties will not have a majority in the European Parliament's 751-seat chamber.

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The Social Democrats and the European People's Party, groupings which have dominated for years, lost 39 and 36 seats respectively, according to provisional results.

"This is a profound change," said Janis A. Emmanouilidis, director of studies at the European Policy Centre, another Brussels-based think tank. "The two biggest parties have lost a significant number of seats."

However, voters often use the E.U. elections to give major parties a bloody nose, secure in the knowledge that it will not cause upheaval in their own national parliaments.

Even so, Sunday's results represented a seismic rejection of the traditional ruling parties across the continent.

"We are facing a shrinking center of the European Union parliament," Manfred Weber, chairman of the European People's Party said. "From now on, those who want to have a strong European Union have to join forces."

The one exception was in Spain, where the Socialists looked set to gain 20 of the country's 54 seats. The Socialists belong to the wider Social Democrats group, however, for whom the general outlook was far more bleak.

"If you lose an election, if you lose seats, you have to be modest," added Frans Timmermans, the lead candidate for the Social Democrats. "We have lost seats and this means that we have to be humble."

3. More than Green shoots

Riding something of an environmentalist wave washing over Europe, the continent's Green group made big gains.

This was most evident in Germany, where the Greens doubled their provisional vote share to 21 percent and overtook the country's traditional center-left Social Democrats in the process.

In France and Britain, the Greens also did well, placing third and fourth respectively. More subtly, environmental issues were given increased prominence in the manifestos of other parties, too.

This shift comes on the back of months of demonstrations demanding action over climate change. In May, the United Nations released a report warning 1 million species of plants and animals were under threat of extinction.

"We will work tirelessly. For people. For Europe. For our planet!" the European Greens tweeted.

4. Pro-E.U. liberals make gains

Another group that mopped up support from the traditional parties was the pro-Europe, pro-business liberal centrists.

Parties allied with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe — known as ALDE — looked set to increase their number of seats from 68 to 109, although this was largely thanks to Macron's En Marche party joining them.

ALDE is led by Guy Verhofstadt, one of the E.U.'s most ardent defenders against populist forces that wish to dismantle or disrupt the union.

The boost in support suggests that voters, especially young people, came out to back their side of the argument.

"When Europe is threatened, you have seen the youth mobilizing to defend it," said Torreblanca at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The BBC also reported that turnout in the U.K. surged in areas that supported the country staying in the E.U. in the 2016 Brexit referendum. Britain's Liberal Democrats came second with 20 percent of the vote. They were one of the parties to explicitly oppose Brexit, and gained huge support in Remain-backing areas, including beating Labour in that party's erstwhile stronghold of London.

5. Good luck trying to govern now

This was the first time in Europe's history that turnout for these elections has risen, climbing from 43 percent to an encouraging 51 percent.

"This is noteworthy," said Emmanouilidis at the European Policy Centre, calling the leap "remarkably higher."

Yet the results spell a European Parliament that is going to be far more fragmented than it has been in recent years.

The two centrist giants bled support and will be unable to form the kind of "grand coalition" that they had before. Instead they might need another coalition partner or two, meaning more compromise and room for disagreement on key issues.

Timmermans, of the Social Democrats, has already ruled out attempting to build a coalition with the far-right, calling instead for a "progressive" grouping to be formed.

"It will become quite messy," said Emmanouilidis, describing attempts to find consensus in Brussels "an uphill struggle" at the best of times.

Reuters contributed.