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EU elections: populist right makes gains but pro-European centre holds

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It wasn’t just in France that the far right was celebrating on Sunday night. In Germany and Austria, parties on the populist right made stunning gains in the European elections – but despite that, the pro-European centre appeared to have held in a set of results likely to complicate EU lawmaking.

In France, Emmanuel Macron called snap legislative elections after a crushing defeat of his allies by Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally, while in Germany, Olaf Scholz’s coalition had a bad night as the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) made significant gains.

The Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union, now in opposition, took a decisive lead, with 30.9% of the vote, according to provisional results. The AfD jumped to 14.2% from 11% in 2019, despite a slew of scandals, including its lead candidate saying that the SS, the Nazi’s main paramilitary force, were “not all criminals”.

Scholz’s Social Democratic party slid to 14.6%, worse than its weakest ever result in 2019, according to the exit poll. The Greens, who came second in 2019 with 20.5%, were knocked down to fourth place with 12.8%.

Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni’s position as possible kingmaker was confirmed by exit polls that showed her hard-right Brothers of Italy party winning 26%-30% of the vote, comfortably ahead of its centre-left rivals on 21%-25%.

In Austria, meanwhile, the far-right Freedom party came top, with 25.7%, ahead of the conservative People’s party and the Social Democrats, on 24.7% and 23.2% respectively.

In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ far-right party was second behind a Left-Green alliance, but appeared to have fallen short of expectations. The Freedom party took 17% of the vote, while the Left-Green alliance, led by the former EU Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans, was on 21.1%.

Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party in Hungary also performed below expectations. Provisional results showed his governing coalition came first with 43.7%, a worse result than the 50% predicted by opinion polls. A new challenger party led by former loyalist turned critic, Péter Magyar, took 30.7%.

Despite gains for the far and radical right, the mainstream, pro-European parties were on course to hold their majority.

The centre-right European People’s party (EPP), which also topped the polls in Spain and Poland, won the largest number of seats, boosting the chances of its lead candidate, Ursula von der Leyen, to secure a second term as European Commission president.

“There remains a majority in the centre for a strong Europe and that is crucial for stability. In other words the centre is holding,” von der Leyen said. The extremes on the left and right had gained support, she said, which put “great responsibility on the parties in the centre”.

Socialists won the largest share of the vote in Malta, Romania and Sweden, helping the centre-left to retain its position as the parliament’s second-largest group, albeit far weaker than the 1990s, when it led many more governments.

The EPP, Socialists and Democrats, the centrist Renew group and the Greens were on course for 462 of the 720 seats, a 64.1% share, compared with their 69.2% share in the slightly smaller outgoing parliament, according to a projection based on final and provisional results late on Sunday.

The Greens, however, did not support von der Leyen as European Commission president in 2019, so were not part of her “platform”.

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Von der Leyen said that from Monday she would reach out to the “big political families” that had formed her platform, but did not respond to questions about whether that could include the Greens. She has previously refused to rule out working with Meloni’s hard-right European Conservatives and Reformists group (ECR).

Von der Leyen confident she can retain European Commission presidency – video

The narrowing overall majorities for mainstream pro-European parties could endanger the passing of ambitious laws on climate action. Von der Leyen’s bid for re-election will also require a tricky balancing act, as she needs to win the support of at least 361 of the new members of parliament. That vote is likely to be tight, as 10%-15% of MEPs usually do not vote with their group.

Manfred Weber, the German Christian Democrat MEP and leader of the centre right European People’s party, said his group was now the “stabilising” force in Europe, after the rise of the far right in Germany, France and Austria.

“Voters are not opting for this extreme right positioning,” Weber said. “In France and Germany, that is a domestic situation, but we are increasing our seats and that is helping us stabilise the centre.

Bas Eickhout, a Dutch MEP who is one of the two lead candidates for the Greens, said he was disappointed with the projected result in Germany. “In 2019, we had 10%. We knew we would not reach that. I think if we are around 7% or 8%, that would still be a pretty good result for us, I would say,” he told reporters.

But the Greens had increased their strength in Croatia, Slovenia, Latvia and had become the biggest party in Denmark, he said. “It’s a mixed bag of results.”

The EPP also did well in Poland, where prime minister Donald Tusk’s Civic Coalition on 38.2% was comfortably ahead of the hard-right Law and Justice party on 33.9%, which was beaten in 2023’s national elections. In Spain, the centre-right Popular party, on 32.4%, was just ahead of the governing Socialists, with 30.2%, while the far-right Vox party was on course to gain seats.

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