BRUSSELS — With final figures being tallied across the European Union’s 27 member states, right-leaning incumbent governments are breathing a sigh of relief, having largely escaped the feared punishment of voters displeased with the handling of the economic crisis.
The center-right parties in the majority in both national governments and the European Parliament (EP) made no major gains overall, but were able to maintain their dominance, holding on to an estimated 263 of the 736 seats. Left-wing parties other than Greens suffered in almost every country, with far-right parties making some significant headway.
Leaders of the European People’s Party (EPP), the umbrella group for center-right parties in the legislature, are celebrating their victory but acknowledging that the record-low turnout (just over 43 percent) and the presence of more right-wing, anti-EU delegates in this parliament will present challenges over the next five-year term.
The parliament is the only part of the EU bureaucracy directly elected by voters and is charged with approving the EU budget and the membership of the European Commission, the EU's executive arm. As much as 80 percent of national legislation now originates in the EP.
Socialists had hoped that deep concern over the global economic crisis would turn people away from the free-marketeers of the center-right and toward the left-leaning parties that traditionally champion welfare-state policies. But the unique flavor of the European right, which also encompasses a great deal of social welfare, apparently made that shift unnecessary in voters' minds.
Thus, the backlash against standing governments that Socialists (PES) had hoped for just didn’t materialize, leading the group’s president Martin Schulz to lament at length in a late-night news conference Sunday.
“In overall terms, it’s a pretty bitter evening for us,” Schulz said. “We’re bitterly disappointed. We really had expected and hoped for a better result.”
Despite being weakened, and suffering what Schulz called “bad defeats” in some member states, most notably in his own Germany, Socialists easily held on to their spot as a the second largest political group in parliament with an estimated 161 seats.
Greece stood out for giving its Socialist party a victory over the conservative New Democracy government.
Green parties had a very good night, increasing their seats to 52 from 43, especially significant since the total number of parliamentary seats drops to 736 from 785 in this election. They came in third in both France and Germany.
The centrist Liberals (ALDE), as in the last parliament, came in third with 84 spots and are calling themselves the “kingmaker” party, as the EPP will need the support of not just the Socialists but also the Liberals to have enough votes to carry decisions. ALDE’s leader, Graham Watson, said his party was open to cooperation with all except the far right, whose gains he called “regrettable.”
Several far-right and often vociferously anti-immigrant parties are headed for Brussels — Austria, Great Britain, Hungary and the Netherlands have all seen strong showings by such candidates — something the established parties admit will make their cooperation all the more crucial.
Results from the U.K. are prompting particular concern, with the ultra-conservative British National Party picking up possibly two seats and the anti-EU U.K. Independence Party besting Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labor Party along with the major opposition Conservative party.
Scandinavia showed support for maverick parties. In Finland, the top vote-getter in the entire election was an anti-EU campaigner, Timo Soini, head of a new eurosceptic party called the “True Finns,” while the largest three political parties each lost a seat. Neighboring Sweden is sending a pirate to Brussels. The Pirate Party, dedicated to Internet freedom, won 7.1 percent of the vote and will definitely have one seat, possibly even two when the dust clears.
But the loudest upstart of all, the Libertas party led by Irishman Declan Ganley, saw a very disappointing finish for its 531 candidates across 14 states. Not only did Ganley fail to win a seat (though he has demanded a recount), but the only seat Libertas and its affiliates are likely to win is one in France. Ganley had boasted of bringing in 100 MEPs to change the way Brussels does business.
Nonetheless, the latest count shows there are 93 other unaligned MEPs who are likely to do that. Most of these are eurosceptics and if they band together, they outnumber both the No. 3 pro-EU Liberals and the No. 4 Greens, whose members are not united on support for the Lisbon reform treaty, though generally are not anti-union.
EPP Chairman Joseph Daul confirmed he plans to nominate current European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso for a second term, a privilege EPP earns as the largest party in the EP. While many Socialists have indicated in the past they are willing to support the conservative Barroso for the post, Watson said the Liberals “will have to be convinced” that Barroso’s platform is good enough, despite the lack of any other candidate at this point.
Nothing is likely to happen on naming a new commission, however, until after Ireland takes a new vote on the Lisbon treaty, expected in October. Ganley, who led opposition to the treaty in the first poll, has said he will not play a role in the second vote if he doesn’t win an EP seat, which now looks to be the case. Recent polls show the treaty likely to pass an Irish vote, this time irrelevant of Ganley's political fate, which could lead to final approval by the Czech and Polish governments which are also holding up its implementation pending the Irish result.
Watson, who is resigning as group chair to run for president of the new parliament, wasted no time in using the low turnout figures to promote his ideas about how to interest more people in voting next time. He advocates making an existing European news channel, Euronews, an official public broadcaster entrusted with bringing more information on EU institutions to the public as well as choosing the raft of European commissioners from the EP. Watson says that way voters would feel like they have more direct influence and therefore be more motivated to cast a ballot.
See here for a roundup of the results from GlobalPost's correspondents across the EU.
Read more about the elections:
Reasons to care about the European Parliament elections
Brussels warily watches voter turnout decline
The European Parliament elections as beauty pageant