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First reflections on the European elections

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The weeks of campaigning are over, and Europe has spoken (or at least the four in ten people who turned out to vote – a record low turnout).

Across the European Union’s 27 member states, votes were being counted on Sunday night as people chose the 736 Members of the European Parliament that will represent them for the next five years. The results were clear: a clear victory for the centre-right parties, a surge for the Greens, notably in France and Germany, and a pretty disastrous set of results for socialists and social democrats.

Firstly, Europe turned to the centre-right – notably governing parties – in a time of economic crisis caused by some of the excesses of capitalism. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party managed to almost double its number of seats; in Germany, the CDU of Angela Merkel (with the Bavarian CSU) will remain the biggest part of the main centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) group, and the largest single national party in the Parliament; and Silvio Berlusconi overcome his recent controversies to become the EPP’s second-largest formation. In Poland, the Civic Platform won nearly three-fifths of the vote and 28 seats – which will give the ‘old European’ EPP a significant Polish accent.

Secondly, (Western) Europe went Green: in France and Germany, there was a significant surge for the ecologist parties, with 14 seats in each country. In Belgium, the Greens won three seats, aided by a surge for the Francophone party, Ecolo. In the UK, the Greens won more votes (although they were hampered by the regional voting system and will win only two seats).

Europe has spoken – or at least the four in ten people who turned out to vote

Thirdly, the socialist parties – who could have been expected to benefit from the economic crisis – did terribly. In Germany, the SPD won just over half the number of seats gained by the CDU/CSU – an inauspicious result in view of national elections in the autumn. In France, the Socialist Party was squeezed out by the Greens. In the UK, Labour fell to 13 seats from the 19 it held before the poll (of which more below). The Dutch Labour Party fell into third place behind the right-wing Freedom Party.

There was also a surge in the vote for minor parties, often with dubious views: the election of two MEPS from the racist British National Party has sent shockwaves through the UK. In Finland, the populist True Finns party won three seats; in Hungary, an anti-Gypsy party, Jobbik, gained three seats. Allied to the victory for the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, as well as a surge in support for the far-right in Austria, there will be a significant extreme Right presence in Brussels and Strasbourg.

Of the more moderate Eurosceptic parties, Libertas (the anti-Lisbon Treaty movement founded by Declan Ganley on the back of success in the Irish referendum) failed to make a real impact.

However, the UK demonstrated a real shift in public opinion against the EU (fuelled by protests about the lack of a referendum on the Lisbon text): the United Kingdom Independence Party won 13 seats (the same as Labour) and came second in the popular vote.

The Conservatives, increasingly Eurosceptic and looking to form a right-wing alliance outside the Europhile EPP, won 24 seats and topped the poll. With the BNP’s two members and anti-Europeans likely to win in Northern Ireland, the UK is likely to send more anti-EU, ‘withdrawalists’ or Eurosceptics to the Parliament than it does pro-Europeans. The issue of Britain’s membership of the Union is firmly back on the table.

Also back on the table (if it ever left it) is the question of Gordon Brown’s leadership of the Labour Party and his tenure as prime minister. Already forced into an early reshuffle of his team on Friday (before the European election results, or those from local elections had been counted), he is now facing calls from nervous national MPs to stand down. He shows no sign of doing so, but Labour’s diminished delegation (13 MEPs; only one member in its Welsh heartland; no MEP in the South West; and squeezed out by the BNP in its traditional territory of Lancashire and Yorkshire) may prove the final straw. A meeting of the party’s Westminster MPs on Monday will give Mr Brown a tough ride, and the impact of any defenestration of the prime minister could be dire for Europe, too.

With the opposition Conservatives successful in the polls (but not all-conquering) and looking likely to form the next government on the promise of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, an early general election could scupper Europe’s constitutional future as well.

A version of this article first appeared on the Burson-Marsteller Blog