Europe Has Voted

The new European Parliament is both more diverse and more fragmented. But the message voters sent turned out to be quite different from the populist wave many were dreading.

More than 427 million Europeans were eligible to vote last week across the Union to fill 751 seats in the European Parliament – new and returning Members (MEPs) who will serve for the next five years. The last pan-European election was 2014, making this the first since the “refugee crisis” of 2015, the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump in 2016, among a series of political firestorms that have altered the political terrain. Many feared a populist surge that could endanger the foundations of the EU.

What happened instead was more complicated, and more interesting: European voters did choose to give the Conservatives and Social Democrats a drubbing, so for the first time since the establishment of the European Parliament (EP) 40 years ago, both parties will not divide a majority of the seats between them.

But voters disgruntled with the status quo did not just turn to right-wing populists, even though these parties did manage to gain some seats overall. They also strengthened the Greens, Liberals and many independent candidates.

Former Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt neatly illustrated this development with a direct comparison of the EPs elected in 2014 and in 2019.

 

Encouragingly, voter turnout rose by more than 8 percentage points, reaching a 20-year high of 50.95% or 217 million voters. European elections are sometimes criticized for not being representative, but as turnout goes, this is actually a decent number – more than the 49.3% who voted in the US midterm elections.

In Austria, turnout jumped by more than 14 percentage points to 59.8%, the highest since the first EU elections here in 1996. The results gave a boost to Sebastian Kurz’s Conservative Party (ÖVP). With long-time MEP Othmar Karas in the lead, the ÖVP got 34% of the Austrian vote (+7.5% on the previous election in 2014), translating into 7 of Austria’s 18 seats in the European Parliament.

The Social Democrats (SPÖ) led by Andreas Schieder finished with a nearly-unchanged 24% (-0.20%) and 5 seats. Many saw this as a failure, since the main opposition party could conceivably have profited from the center-right government’s recent implosion over the Ibiza Affair. The right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ) with lead candidate Harald Vilimsky experienced modest losses, getting 17.20% of the vote (-2.5%) and 3 seats.  This was, however, dramatically below pre-scandal polls projections of 23-25%.

The Greens led by Werner Kogler were overjoyed by their 14% (-0.44%) – their first big political win since failing to clear the 4% hurdle to get into parliament in the 2017 national elections. The Greens are set to have 2 MEPs in the current Parliament and a third one (Austria’s 19th) if and when Britain actually leaves the EU. Finally, the liberal Neos led by Claudia Gamon held the line, with 8.44% (+0.40%), giving them 1 MEP.

The Communist Party (KPÖ) with Katerina Anastasiou and the new “Europa Anders” party with Johannes Voggenhuber both earned around 1%. The rest of the ÖVP’s gains came from other parties that did not run this time (+/- 6.55%).

 

 

 

 

The ÖVP’s success did not stop challenges from other parties, who passed a motion of “no confidence” against Sebastian Kurz’s government on Monday, May 27.

On the European level, the newly elected parliament and heads of state will now scramble to fill key positions at the European Commission and the ECB. This should have been Kurz’s role – but Austria must wait and see who President Alexander Van der Bellen will now appoint as interim chancellor until new elections can be held in September.

Benjamin Wolf
Benjamin studied Journalism, History and International Affairs. After stints with Cafébabel in Paris and Arte in Strasbourg, he is now working as managing editor and COO for Metropole in Vienna. Fields of expertise are politics, economics, culture, and history.Photo: Visual Hub

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