French far-right leader Marine Le Pen won her symbolic duel with President Emmanuel Macron yesterday, as eurosceptic forces made strong gains in the EU parliamentary election.
Turnout EU-wide was estimated at 51%, the highest in 20 years, implying that more than 200mn citizens across the 28-nation bloc voted in an election billed as a battle between populists and pro-European forces.
Mainstream parties put up enough of a defence to keep a majority in the 751-seat assembly – and Green parties also did well – but Le Pen’s victory in her head-to-head with Macron set the tone of the night.
Le Pen’s National Rally was on track for around 24.0-24.2%, with Macron’s centrists trailing with 22.5-23.0%, according to two polls from Ifop-Fiducial and Harris Interactive-Agence Epoka.
The mainstream conservatives, centrists and socialists in the European Parliament now face a choice over whether to maintain a “cordon sanitaire” to keep the radicals from the levers of power, or to seek accommodation.
Each previous EU election since the first in 1979 has seen turnout fall, but initial figures from across the 28-nation bloc suggested this year’s culture clash has mobilised both populists and those who oppose them.
“I guess that some marginal parties will be less marginal tonight,” European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said as he cast his vote in his native Luxembourg.
According to exit polls, Germany’s anti-immigrant Afd (Alternative for Germany) broke 10% in a national poll for the first time, while the mainstream socialist lost ground and Greens move into second place behind the ruling centre-right.
In the Polish seaport of Sopot, European Council chief Donald Tusk expressed confidence that voters would not succumb to the approach of what he called “radical political movements, eurosceptics”.
But he admitted that the stakes were high: “The first priority, not only for this institution, is to save the EU as a project, not only at this time but in the long term, and I’m sure that they will manage.”
Eurosceptic parties opposed to the project of ever closer union hope to capture as many as a third of the seats in the EU parliament, disrupting Brussels’ pro-integration consensus.
The far-right parties of Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and France’s Le Pen led the populist charge, but anti-EU ranks will also be boosted by the Brexit Party of British populist Nigel Farage.
Macron had taken it upon himself to act as figurehead for the centrist and liberal parties, and Le Pen took up his challenge.
Turnout was much higher in many countries than in 2014, a historic low.
German conservative Manfred Weber, lead candidate for the centre-right EPP group hailed the public interest, declaring: “European democracy is very much alive.”
Meanwhile, the mainstream parties are vying between themselves for influence over the choice of a new generation of top EU officials, including the powerful president of the European Commission.
Britain and the Netherlands were first to vote, on Thursday, followed by Ireland and the Czech Republic on Friday with Slovakia, Malta and Latvia on Saturday, leaving the bulk of the 400mn eligible voters to join in yesterday.
At the last EU election in 2014, Slovakia had the lowest turnout of any country, at less than 14%, and centrist President Andrej Kiska voiced concern that “extremists are mobilising”.
The right and the far-right have not had everything their own way.
In the Netherlands, the centre-left party of EU vice-president Frans Timmermans won the most votes and added two seats for the Socialists and Democrats in parliament, according to exit polls.
The Socialists and Democrats’ centre-right rival, the European People’s Party (EPP), was buoyed by exit polls suggesting that Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s pro-EU Fine Gael party was in the lead in Ireland.
Even if Britain leaves the European Union on October 31, the latest deadline set for its Brexit date, its MEPs could still play a role in this summer’s scramble to hand out top jobs.
Thursday’s votes from the United Kingdom will not be counted until after polls close in Italy, but Farage’s Brexit Party appears on course to send a large delegation to a parliament it wants to abolish.
But much will depend on who gets the top jobs: the presidencies of the Council and the Commission, the speaker of parliament, the high representative for foreign policy and director of the European Central Bank.
EU leaders have been invited to a summit tomorrow to decide the nominees.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to back Weber for the Commission, but Macron and some others oppose choosing a parliamentarian.
Provisional results of the European Parliament election was due to begin emerging from 2100 GMT (midnight Qatar time).
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