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News: Historic turnout sees the rise of green and populist parties

From 23rd-26th May, Europe took to the polls, electing new Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to represent them for the next five years. In this blog, we go through the main results of these elections.

At a glance:

1. Voter turnout increased from 42.6% to 50.8%, a 20-year high

2. Middle and centrist parties suffered big losses across the Union

3. Right-wing populist parties did very well across the Union, particularly in Italy, France and the UK, but not as well as predicted

4. Green parties did exceptionally, and surprisingly, well, doubling their votes in many countries to become a leading force in the EU

1. Voter Turnout Increased

For the first time ever, voter turnout increased, making it to 50.8%. This is the highest turnout for 20 years, and a substantial increase on the turnout at the last election (42.6%). Turnout has been falling since elections began in 1979. It is important to note that this is an average of voter turnout from across the union, and results varied significantly by country. The lowest voter turnout was in Slovakia with 22.74%. The highest was in Belgium (where voting is compulsory) with 88.47%.

Figure 1: Voter turnout in the European Parliament elections (Data taken from European Parliament)

This higher average turnout is likely the result of several factors. Firstly, there has been a significant push from multiple campaigns encouraging people to vote in the elections. These include our very own You&EU, and the European Parliament's own campaign 'This Time I'm Voting', amongst others. Secondly, Brexit is a notable factor. The decision of the UK voters to leave the EU, and the subsequent failure of the UK government to actually do so, has ignited interest across the political spectrum. Some on the political right want their own version of 'Brexit', encouraging their country to also leave the EU, whilst others on the left want to ensure their country remains a member state, whilst pushing for the liberalisation of the Union.

Regardless of why more people took to the polls, this is a significant and positive result - the more people who vote, the more reflective the European Parliament is of it's citizens' views and values. EU officials are hence welcoming this year's rise as making the EU more legitimate.

2. The Fall of the Middle Ground

Middle and centrist parties did not fare well in this election. Whilst they will still be the largest party groups in the European Parliament, their dominance has significantly decreased. The centre right group EPP (European People's Party) has gone from 221 seats (29.43%) to 179 seats (23.8%), and the centre left group S&D (Socialists & Democrats) has gone from 191 seats (25.43%) to 153 seats (20.4%).

For the first time since elections began in 1979, these centrist parties have lost their combined majority, forcing them to work more closely with other groups to pass legislation. Former centre left voters have shifted to more left-wing, liberal groups, often Green parties, whilst former centre right voters favoured more right-wing, populist and nationalist groups.

3. The Rise of the Right

Right wing parties were always expected to do well in these elections. However, whilst they did do well - they did not do quite as well as predicted. These populist and nationalist parties are usually Eurosceptic and performed far better in some countries than in others. In Italy, the Lega Nord party went from 6% of the vote in 2014 to 34% in 2019, and in France the Rassemblement National (previously the National Front 'Front National' until 2018) narrowly won with 23.3% of the vote. In the UK, the Brexit party were the clear winners with 30.5% (the next best result was the Liberal Democrats with a distant 19.6%).

These populist parties now have about 25% of the seats in the Parliament, making them a significant feature in the European political landscape. However, their ability to make their mark on legislation and the future of the Union will depend on their ability to work together and to make compromises with more centrist parties. They are hence widely viewed more likely to block new legislation than pose any of their own.

4. The Surge of the Green Wave

Across the Union, Green parties performed astonishingly well, increasing their seats from 50 to 69. In Germany they came in second place with 20% of the vote, in France they came third with 13%, and in Finland they came second with 16%. In the UK, the Green party even did better than the currently governing Conservative party, winning 12% of the vote compared to the government's 8.8%.

This green wave is likely the result of recent campaigns that have brought more attention to the climate crisis. The activism of Greta Thunberg, for example, has sparked weekly protests around the world from school children demanding politicians take action to protect their futures. In the UK, climate group Extinction Rebellion brought parts of London to a stand still with their weeks-long protest last month. These protests are becoming more common and more widely publicised, with more and more people attending them and more and more people hearing their message.

The green wave was not seen across the Union, however. Green parties failed to win any seats in Eastern Europe, and picked up just a couple seats in central Europe. Here the Green parties aren't as strong as they are in Western Europe, and environmental matters are usually covered by other liberal parties so the Greens are less unique. Despite this, the gains made by the Greens are enough to make them major players in the next government, likely more so than the populist groups as centrist parties are more willing to work with them. In order to get their support however, centrist parties will likely have to meet the Green's high demands for urgent climate action.

These results certainly make for a more diverse and interesting parliament. Thank you to everyone who voted in these elections and making your voice heard.

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