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Turnout Up In EU Vote But Can The Center Hold After Populist Surge?

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen reacts after her party's strong showing in EU parliamentary elections on May 26.

BRUSSELS -- European Union democracy is alive and kicking.

That is the best takeaway from last night's results in the European Parliament elections as the fear of a populist wave seems to have prompted people to go and vote and make history by increasing overall voter turnout for the first time in European history.

But beyond that happy headline, Europeans elected a chamber that is more fragmented than ever where populists still made gains, as did pro-EU Greens and Liberals, at the expense of the two dominant forces for decades in EU politics – the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D).

But for now, officials in the European Parliament will focus on that number -- the estimated 50.5 percent of EU citizens who cast a vote over four days of European elections in the 28 member states.

I looked at the relieved faces of some of them on the afternoon of May 26 as numbers from country after country indicated that voter turnout was on the up.

For EU officials, this is the big thing.

People have always questioned the democratic legitimacy of the European Parliament but now they can hit back -- the trend has bucked, the U-turn made.

Ever since direct elections to the chamber started back in 1979, when 62 percent of the eligible population went to the ballots, the number has shrunk at every vote. In the last election in 2014, it hit a new low with 42.5 percent.

This year’s result is better than the previous four elections.

Scaremongering On Both Sides

The question is why did this happen?

The answer from voters is scaremongering on both sides.

In the pro-EU camp, the fear of a parliament full of Euroskeptics made people take notice and action.

And on the populists' side it was the fear of immigrant invasions and domination from Brussels that won the day.

As a result, populists finished on top in countries like France, Hungary, Italy, Poland and the United Kingdom but they also did quite poorly in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Finland and the Netherlands.

They will now have well over 100 members in the 751-seat parliament but it appears that they will be divided into at least two political groups and some of them, like Hungary’s Fidesz, are still in the pro-EU EPP.

They will make more noise than before but that they won’t be able to block any legislation, especially since -- apart from their dislike of the EU -- they agree on little else among themselves.

Green Tide

But there was also a Green tide in the Western half of the bloc, with a sensational second place in Germany and surprisingly good results in France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom that most probably will make them the fourth biggest political group in the parliament.

In the eastern part of the union they were conspicuously absent, however.

Another winner, the liberals, will have close to 110 seats, making it the third force -- and a potential kingmaker in the plenary.

The two losers are the two biggest parties, the EPP and the S&D.

For the first time ever, they won’t have a majority between them as both lost around 40 seats.

Their candidates spoke of the "the fall of the center” and that they now have to reach out to other parties to find workable majorities.

And this will be needed very soon as the work now starts to find the next president of the European Commission.

EU heads of government are due to meet in Brussels on May 28 for a summit dedicated to starting the process of identifying this person.

They do so knowing full well that whoever they put forward must be approved by a majority of the new European Parliament, which starts working in July.

It's a parliament with a reinforced democratic mandate, but also one that is more colorful and fragmented than ever.

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.