French far-right Front National (FN) party president Marine Le Pen (L) and Italian Lega Nord (Northern League) Secretary, Matteo Salvini are seen at the first Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) congress in Milan, on January 28, 2016. (Photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE / AFP) (Photo credit should read GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images)
Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini made breakthroughs in the European elections © Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

Europe’s far-right and nationalist parties made some significant gains in this weekend’s European Parliament elections. But it was hardly the surge that some of its supporters had promised or its opponents had feared. The pro-Europe centre has held, except this time the Greens and the Liberals have muscled their way in.

The elections have created a more diverse and fragmented legislature. The centre-left and centre-right have lost their combined majority for the first time in 40 years. This will inevitably give the smaller parties more leverage and the effects may be pronounced on environmental rules, trade liberalisation and tech regulation. But it will not be a revolution. 

The faultlines on the really important issues, such as strengthening the eurozone with more risk-sharing between its members, run through each of the mainstream parties. They are unlikely to shift. 

On most issues, parliament already works through shifting coalitions. The onus will now be on the pro-Europe parties to organise themselves and work together in a disciplined fashion. Whether they can unite behind one candidate to be the next European Commission president will be an early test. It may prove too much, too soon.

Europe’s nationalist forces will, by definition, find it even harder to forge a united front. The scandal that brought down Austria’s far-right leader last week highlighted the deep divisions among nationalist forces over links with Russia. 

They are divided, too, over fiscal policy, free-market economics and what exactly the EU should do on migration. An electoral wave would have allowed them to surf over these obstacles but it did not materialise.

More on the 2019 European elections 

Together, rightwing Eurosceptic parties have about 23 per cent of the seats in parliament. There were some notable breakthroughs. 

Matteo Salvini’s hard-right League lept into first place in Italy with about 30 per cent of the vote, remarkable given that a year ago it was on 17 per cent. In the previous European election five years ago, it won only 6 per cent. The result, coupled with third place for his Five Star coalition partner, seals his political ascendance.

In France, Marine Le Pen won her rematch with Emmanuel Macron. She has turned the page on her disastrous performance in the second round of the presidential election. She inflicted a personal blow on a president who had invested himself in a duel with the far-right leader. But it was hardly a catastrophe, given the battering Mr Macron took only six months ago from the gilets jaunes protesters. It is unlikely to push him off course.

Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party triumphed in the UK, crushing the Conservatives. But his presence may be temporary and, in any case, his Eurosceptic allies have found that talk of exit is electorally damaging. 

Viktor Orban won comfortably in Hungary but does not quite have the leverage over the mainstream centre-right European People’s party he had hoped. It remains the biggest party with or without his Fidesz MEPs. His dream of a centre-right alliance with the nationalist right is fading fast. Mainstream parties in France and Spain that had warmed to it did badly.

The ultraconservative Law and Justice held on to its lead in Poland, but opposition parties there have a spring in their step. The far-right Danish People’s party took a drubbing. Spain’s Vox won some seats for the first time but has lost a lot of speed since last month’s general election disappointment. 

One lesson from the elections, where turnout was the highest in 20 years, is that pro-Europe voters were ready to switch parties to make their voice heard. 

The Green waves in Germany and France will reverberate. And in the UK, the combined vote share of pro-Europe parties was significantly ahead of the hardcore Brexiters. European politics is in tumult, but it is not all moving in the nationalists’ favour.

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