If the European Parliamentary elections were a mini-referendum on Brexit, the result remains unclear. However, it seems that the Brexit saga has had marked impact in the rest of Europe where anti-European Union (EU) sentiment apparently subsided.
The vote in the United Kingdom (U.K.) saw significant gains for the Brexit Party, which took the major share of the vote at 31.6 percent, while the Liberal Democrats were second with 20.3 percent, with Labour and Greens coming in third and fourth 14.1 and 12.1 percent respectively. The ruling Conservative Party managed only 9.1 percent of the vote, its worst election result in 200 years.
However, for the U.K. this is not the whole story as clearly the voters entered the European elections with Brexit as the single issue on their minds. What followed was a shift to a more polarised position than was the case before the elections.
The increase in the “remain” (in the EU) vote was substantial and taking all the remain votes from all the parties that stood on a remain or second referendum platform, the total remain took 40.4 percent of the vote, while all the unambiguously Brexit parties achieved 34.9 percent of the vote, on a turnout of 37 percent, or 16.6 million people.
As a poll on the referendum, this would show a shift in favour of remain, but the picture is more complex than that. The two major parties (Labour and Conservatives) lost substantial percentages of voters; Labour in mainly remain areas and the Tories in leave-supporting regions. This suggests that there may be a further polarisation in British politics taking place, pushing the Tories to back Brexit and the Labour Party to support remain or at least a second referendum.
In the rest of Europe, the expected surge by the populist right did not materialise and that, according to some commentators, was because of the ‘Brexit effect.’ Voters within the 27 other EU countries are said to have looked at the severe difficulties that Brexit has caused in British politics and have shifted away from those that advocate leaving the EU.
There were significant gains for the Greens, and the Liberals were successful and the centre right and centre left blocs lost their majority in the European Parliament for the first time. In some cases the far right populists also gained some ground, particularly in France as Marine Le Pen’s far right National Rally just about topped the polls ahead of the ruling Emmanuel Macron. Meanwhile Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and Hungary’s Viktor Orban also polled strongly, but overall the 751-member European Parliament has a left-leaning overall composition.
The composition of the European Parliament could lead to a change in the political persuasion of the European Commission president, according to some, with the previous Commission presidents often to the centre right. If a more left-leaning president were appointed the EU priorities could change.
The Greens performed well in a number of European countries, including Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg and the U.K. Green representation has increased from 51 seats in the Parliament to 70 seats and could reflect the growing concerns across Europe of the environmental crisis that some feel the world is facing.
Other senior appointments to the presidencies of the European Council and the European Central Bank and a host of other European Commissioners will all be selected over the coming weeks with the new European Commission set to sit for the first time on 1 November, one day after the U.K. is due to leave the EU.