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6 key takeaways from the critical European elections

Hands grabbing the stars of the EU flag
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The results are in from this week's European Parliament elections, a massive, 4-day democratic exercise spanning 28 countries, 400 million voters and hundreds of parties all vying for a voice in the 751-seat assembly.

Why it matters: With nationalism resurgent, this election was critical for those who wanted to preserve and further integrate the 62-year-old European Union — as well as those who wanted it dismantled from within.

6 key takeaways

1. Record turnout

Traditionally a low-interest contest akin to the U.S. midterms, final numbers show voter turnout increased from the last cycle for the first time since the first European elections were held in 1979. About 51% of the 400 million eligible Europeans vote, compared to 42.6% in 2014, and turnout increased in all but 7 countries.

2. Europe's political center crumbles

As projected, the center-right conservatives (EPP) and center-left socialists (S&D) lost their combined majority, ending the "grand coalition" that had commanded parliament for the last 40 years.

  • The liberal ALDE will merge with Emmanuel Macron's centrist, pro-EU Renaissance to comprise the 3rd largest group, marking one of two major realignments of power — with the other coming on the far-right, populist wing of the assembly.

3. Green wave

In what some commentators are dubbing the "Greta Thunberg effect," Green parties flooded the ballots in northern and western Europe, outperforming Politico Europe's projections by 10 seats and becoming the 4th largest group in parliament.

  • The Greens' performance was especially strong in Germany, where they almost doubled their 2014 result and helped devastate the center-left Social Democrats. The Greens "cemented their status as the rising force in German politics," the FT notes, but their presence in southern and eastern Europe remains virtually nonexistent.

4. Nationalists sputter

The overwhelming narrative heading into the elections was that a new crop of far-right, populist parties — emboldened by a wave of victories in national and regional elections — would take parliament by storm and become kingmakers. Certain nationalist parties like the Sweden Democrats fared well, but the overall gains were modest.

  • One astute caveat: Academic Matthew Goodwin points out that while Denmark's far-right was decimated, the country's center-left party has adopted one of the most restrictive immigration policies in Europe. "The national populists collapsed because they won the argument," Goodwin writes.

5. A mixed bag in France

Marine Le Pen's National Rally eked out a victory (23%-22%) over Macron — seen as a bellwether for greater EU integration — but failed to perform as well as in 2014. That comes as a surprise, given the persistent domestic troubles, such as the months-long gilet jaunes protests, that have helped sink Macron's approval rating at home.

  • Former presidents Sarkozy and Hollande's Republican and Socialist parties, meanwhile, combined for less than 15% — a collapse that The Economist's Sophie Pedder argues confirms "the upending of the French party-political system that Macron brought about in 2017."

6. The Brexit election

Nigel Farage's new Brexit Party dominated the U.K.'s dreaded European election, which was only held because of a failure by Theresa May's Conservative government to pass a Brexit deal in time. The Conservatives were decimated across the country, but so were the opposition Labour Party — a devastating rebuke of the U.K.'s two main political parties.

  • The Liberal Democrats appear to be the main beneficiary of Labour's collapse, likely due to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's reluctance to adopt a second referendum as the party's official platform. The Lib Dems even won in Islington, Corbyn's own constituency.
  • While the Brexit Party's triumph will likely dominate headlines, it's worth noting that the various pro-Remain parties together comprise the majority of votes.

What to watch: There is still plenty to come in the way of group alignments, with parties on both sides of the political spectrum set to find new families. Once that's completed, parliament will vote on the next president of the European Commission, the EU's powerful executive body. The current favorite is Manfred Weber, leader of the now-weakened EPP.

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