Europe’s longtime political center appeared to shrink Sunday as exit polls and early results from the hardest-fought European Parliament elections in decades showed both the anti-immigrant far right and the pro-environment Greens gaining ground.
The four days of balloting across the 28 European Union countries were seen as a test of the influence of the nationalist, populist and hard-right movements that have swept the continent in recent years and impelled Britain to quit the EU. Turnout among the 426 million eligible voters was the highest in two decades.
While pro-EU parties still were expected to win about two-thirds of the 751-seat legislature that sits in Brussels and Strasbourg, other contenders appeared headed for significant gains, according to projections released by Parliament.
Exit polls in France indicated that Marine Le Pen’s far-right, anti-immigrant National Rally party came out on top in an astonishing rebuke of French President Emmanuel Macron, who has made EU integration the heart of his presidency. Le Pen said the projected outcome “confirms the new nationalist-globalist division” in France and beyond.
In Germany, the EU’s biggest country, exit polls indicated that the party of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and its center-left coalition partner also suffered losses, while the Greens were set for big gains and the far right was expected to pick up slightly more support.
In Italy, hardline Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s right-wing populist League was projected to become his country’s largest party, jumping from around 6% of the vote during the last election five years ago to between 27% and 31% this time.
Salvini’s first reaction was a tweeted photo of himself holding a handwritten message: “1st Party in Italy.”
And Hungary said Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s fiercely anti-immigration Fidesz party had won 13 of the country’s 21 seats in the EU Parliament, one more than it had in 2014.
Turnout across the bloc was put at a 50.5%, a 20-year high. Full election results were expected overnight.
The continent-wide voting had major implications not just for the functioning of the bloc but also for the internal politics in many countries.
The balloting, which began Thursday, pitted supporters of closer European unity against those who consider the EU a meddlesome and bureaucratic presence and want to return power to national governments and sharply restrict immigration.
The results could leave Parliament’s two main parties, the European People’s Party and the Socialists & Democrats, without a majority for the first time since 1979, opening the way for complicated talks to form a working coalition. The Greens and the ALDE free-market liberals are jockeying to become decisive in the body.
Esther de Lange, vice chair of the EPP, conceded that the results indicate “fragmentation and a shrinking center.”
Early projections suggested the Greens would secure 71 seats, up from 52 the last time. The Greens appeared to have done well not just in Germany but in France and Ireland.
“The Green wave has really spread all over Europe, and for us that is a fantastic result,” said Ska Keller, the group’s co-leader in the Parliament.
The EU and its Parliament set trade policy on the continent, regulate agriculture, oversee antitrust enforcement and set monetary policy for 19 of the 28 nations sharing the euro currency.
Britain voted even though it is planning to leave the EU. Its EU lawmakers will lose their jobs as soon as Brexit happens.
Europe has been roiled in the past few years by immigration from the Mideast and Africa and deadly attacks by Islamic extremists. It has also seen rising tensions over economic inequality and growing hostility toward the political establishment — sentiments not unlike those that got Donald Trump elected in the U.S.
Proponents of stronger EU integration, led by Macron, argue that issues like climate change and immigration are too big for any one country to tackle alone.
Germany’s Manfred Weber, the candidate of the EPP, said it is “most necessary for the forces that believe in this Europe, that want to lead this Europe to a good future, that have ambitions for this Europe,” to work together.
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