The Slow Death of Europe’s Traditional Center

Smaller, pro-EU parties made large gains. Far-right nationalists won too, but less than expected.

Alice Bah Kuhnke, a Swedish Green Party candidate, and Per Bolund, the Swedish minister for financial markets and housing, cheer the results at an election-night watch party. The Greens were among the best performers in the European Parliament elections. (Janerik Henriksson / TT News Agency / Reuters)

BRUSSELS—Two visions for the future of Europe went head to head in the European Union’s parliamentary elections. By the time the results were announced Sunday night, it was clear neither had won outright.

This is not how many expected these European elections to go. The prediction was for far-right-nationalist parties to display their newfound political influence. After all, since the last European Parliament elections, in 2014, the EU has witnessed traditional parties decline, new populist governments form, and even one of its member states vote to leave the bloc altogether.

This prediction ultimately didn’t come to pass. Though the elections saw some far-right parties (such as Marine Le Pen’s National Rally) come out on top, they also showed decades-high voter turnout and a surge in support for smaller, pro-European parties (such as the Greens in Germany and the Liberal Democrats in Britain). Taken together, the results suggest that the EU has experienced not the predicted surge of the far right, but the hollowing of its center. Beyond which parties won the most seats—and which alliances will be buoyed because of that—the results foreshadow a European future increasingly influenced by diametrically opposing forces, and the divisions that come with them.

Liberals, Greens, and far-right-nationalist parties were dubbed the primary winners of the night. These victories came at the expense of traditional center-left and center-right parties, which are expected to lose their combined majorities in the European Parliament. This means that should the center-right European People’s Party alliance and the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats wish to continue governing in coalition as they do now, they will need to seek the support of additional partners. “It’s clear this evening is a historical moment,” Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, said Sunday, proclaiming that there is “a new balance of power” in the chamber.

The results weren’t a surprise for traditional centrist parties that have struggled at the national level. Germany’s ruling Conservatives and Social Democrats, who govern in coalition, suffered losses that mirrored the results of the country’s last general election. In the United Kingdom, the Conservative and Labour parties each hemorrhaged seats to smaller, pro-Brexit and pro-EU parties across the political spectrum.

European elections are typically treated as second-tier contests, in which few turn out to vote. Those who do tend to be driven by domestic issues and often opt to support smaller parties at the expense of established ones. This year, though, was different. Not only did an estimated 51 percent of the bloc’s 400 million eligible voters cast a ballot (a 20-year high, according to the European Parliament), but they did so in a campaign virtually dominated not by domestic issues, but by the EU and its future. Perhaps nowhere was this more evident than in Germany, where nearly all of the major parties (excluding the far-right Alternative for Germany) focused their campaign on their own vision for the bloc.

“These elections are really about sending a signal—do you want to develop the European Union further, or do you want to fall back to nationalism?” Svenja Hahn, a German MEP-elect for the pro-business Free Democratic Party, which increased its vote share by two seats, told me on her final day of campaigning, at a street fair in the northern-Germany city of Hamburg. She and her fellow Free Democratic Party members waved EU flags and held a large banner urging German voters to “Sag JA zu Europa,” or “Say YES to Europe.”

Even in Britain, which wasn’t expected to take part in these EU elections, the topic of Europe—and specifically Brexit—dominated the campaign. Though the nascent Brexit Party, which advocates for Britain leaving the EU without a withdrawal deal, performed the best, with 31.7 percent of the vote, pro-EU parties such as the Liberal Democrats and the Greens also made substantial gains. The outcome reflects deep divisions that already existed within Britain over Brexit: The five unequivocally pro-EU parties (including the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the Scottish National Party, Change U.K., and Plaid Cymru) earned a collective 40 percent of the vote, compared with the combined 35 percent earned by the unequivocally euroskeptic Brexit Party and U.K. Independence Party.

Though euroskeptic parties have always had a presence in the European Parliament, they have struggled to wield substantial influence. And though far-right parties experienced victories in countries such as France, Italy, and Hungary, this seems unlikely to change. A new alliance of nationalist parties, led by Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, is poised to claim 70 of the European Parliament’s 751 seats, making it the fourth-biggest parliamentary group, behind the center-right European People’s Party, the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, and the new alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, led by French President Emmanuel Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. This means that though far-right parties will be able to exert some influence, they are unlikely to emerge as an obstructive force within the bloc—particularly when it comes to decisions such as picking the next president of the European Parliament.

Indeed, some of the anti-EU, nationalist forces may not join an alliance at all. “I don’t like the idea of going to Brussels and joining an alliance,” Ben Habib, an MEP-elect for the Brexit Party in London, told me ahead of the results. “It may be something that is sensible to do for the greater good of our collective interests, but I want a really good analysis before I sign up to anything else.”

To the extent that there was a wave of support for any one particular party across the EU, it was almost certainly for the Greens. Europe’s Green parties saw major gains in Germany and France, as well as upswings in Ireland, Luxembourg, and Portugal. “There has been a lot of talk about the far right and not so much talk about the Greens,” Sofi Lindholm, a 29-year-old voter, told me, noting the success of the Green Party in her native Finland. “The central party lost one seat and the Greens gained one, so it was a good sign for the planet, for the climate.”

For others awaiting the election results in the plaza outside the European Parliament on Sunday, the results were a victory for Europhiles everywhere—regardless of which party they voted for. “It’s a nice sign that people felt concerned about voting for Europe and people feel more European than previous elections,” Piero Delucia, a 36-year-old voter from Italy, told me of the turnout as he and his friends from the U.K. and Finland awaited the live election returns in the rain.

“This, for me, is already a success.”

The Friedrich Ebert Foundation (Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung) arranged to support travel and accommodations in the European Union for reporting used in this article.