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Takeaways from the European parliamentary elections

Elections workers empty a bin to count postal ballots for the European Union elections in Frankfurt, Germany, on Sunday, June 9, 2024.
Michael Probst
Elections workers empty a bin to count postal ballots for the European Union elections in Frankfurt, Germany, on Sunday, June 9, 2024.

Voters in more than two dozen countries across Europe have voted over several days to determine who will sit as legislators in the European Parliament for the next five years.

Roughly 360 million eligible voters chose 720 parliamentary members from 27 member states in one of the largest democratic exercises on earth. Given the Parliament's sometimes limited ability to influence policies on the continent, protest votes against national governments are common.

National political parties form alliances across the continent to create larger parliamentary groupings based on shared values and policy proposals, and the results announced so far in several major economies — including France, Germany and Italy — indicate a surge of popular support for political parties that are far to the right of the political spectrum. However, the largest political groupings in the next European Union parliament will continue to be the center-left and center-right.

Here are some takeaways from the overnight vote counting, which saw a turnout above 50%:

Macron gambles on a snap election

French President Emmanuel Macron has dissolved parliament in what’s called a snap parliamentary election that will begin later this month after his centrist Renaissance party and its allies earned less than half the votes of the country's right-wing National Rally party. Macron announced his decision late Sunday night in a televised address, saying he "cannot act as if nothing had happened."

As the country's president, Macron will remain in office till the end of his term, but if the hard-right populist National Rally party wins a majority in the French parliament, he could be forced to work alongside a political opponent as prime minister. The far-right party's candidate for prime minister, Jordan Bardella, is just 28 years old.

On social media, Macron wrote Monday morning that he has "confidence in the ability of the French people to make the fairest choice for themselves and for future generations."

One French newspaper described Macron's decision as a "pari extreme" — an extreme gamble.

Far right also advances in Italy, Germany and Austria

Italy's populist far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni saw the vote share of her Brothers of Italy party quadruple since the last European parliamentary elections in 2019. Despite low turnout, she saw her share of the vote in Italy improve over 2022, when she came to power at the head of a right-wing coalition. 

Meloni’s nearest rivals, the Democratic Party, trailed by several points and political analysts say this result could strengthen her hand when it comes to domestic policy-making and buoy her international standing as she prepares to host G7 leaders near the southern city of Bari later this month.

Meanwhile, in Austria, the far-right Freedom Party narrowly outperformed its conservative rivals, the People's Party, with the country's social democrats trailing with the third largest share of the the vote.

In Germany, the Social Democrats — or SPD — led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz, performed poorly, with the opposition conservatives — or CDU — that was once led by his predecessor Angela Merkel winning the largest share, and the far-right Alternative for Germany — or AfD — party winning the country's second-largest share, with big gains in the country's east and among younger voters.

The Belgian liberal Premier Alexander De Croo surprised his country by resigning after a national party called the New-Flemish Alliance performed successfully in the EU vote as well as in local and regional elections that were held simultaneously.

Centrist parties retain largest blocs in EU Parliament

Despite the success of far-right parties in several nations, the center-left and center-right political groupings that have historically dominated the European parliament retained the largest two blocs in the Brussels-based legislature, with the center-right European People's Party — or EPP — increasing its seat count. Ursula von der Leyen, the current president of the European Commission — the executive branch of the European Union — belongs to that EPP group and as vote counting continued she remarked that the continent's political center was holding.

In Spain, the center-right conservative People's Party narrowly defeated the Socialists led by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, with Vox, the country's far-right party, performing less than it had hoped for.

In Poland, one of the continent's other large economies, another former senior leader on the European stage, Donald Tusk, who has returned to his country's domestic politics as a centrist prime minister, saw his party and its coalition partners perform well in a narrow defeat for the country's right-wing Law and Justice party — or PiS — that had for many years dominated these European parliamentary votes. The PiS is one of several political movements across Europe to have challenged the European Union's role in domestic policy-making.

And though Tusk's Civic Coalition — or KO — won the largest share of the vote, one exit poll indicated the country's far-right Confederation party proved the most popular among voters under 30.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán addresses the media after receiving the results of the European Parliament elections in Budapest, Hungary, on Monday, June 10, 2024.
Denes Erdos / AP
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán addresses the media after receiving the results of the European Parliament elections in Budapest, Hungary, on Monday, June 10, 2024.

Hungary’s Orbán faces stronger opposition

Another party to have tested the EU status quo at times — on significant issues that include support for Ukraine and judicial independence — is the Fidesz party led by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

A rare public supporter in Europe of Donald Trump's presidential candidacy, populist Orbán claimed victory in both the European parliamentary elections and in Hungarian municipal votes that coincided with the EU vote.

But he now faces a new opposition party that's growing in strength under young lawyer Peter Magyar, who has held huge rallies nationwide to criticize Orbán's hold on power.

Magyar's center-right Tisza party won 30% of the vote just three months after it was formed and will seek to join the European People's Party grouping in the EU parliament.

Green policies prove unpopular with voters

Left-wing and green parties made significant gains in the EU's Nordic countries of Finland, Denmark and Sweden, but senior political leaders acknowledged that elsewhere in Europe some of the more progressive climate-focused policies have not seemingly won huge support.

Farmers’ protests across many European countries have demanded the bloc's leaders reconsider their plan, known as the European Green Deal, which aggressively tightens environmental standards and reduces emissions by 2040. The protests have morphed in countries like the Netherlands into broader movements that have impacted national politics.

"There was an invisible line that perhaps was crossed," European Parliament President Roberta Metsola of Malta told the BBC, acknowledging that the social and economic impact of climate policies she and others proposed had not been considered.

"We lost people when we did that,” she said.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Willem Marx
[Copyright 2024 NPR]