European elections: Nationalists expected to make gains across EU, with mainstream parties hoping to cling to power

Germany, France, Spain and Italy among countries going to polls today ahead of results on Sunday evening

Harry Cockburn
Sunday 26 May 2019 14:31 BST
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European elections: The key parties profiled

Millions of Europeans are casting their votes on Sunday – the last of four days of voting in the West’s biggest democratic exercise.

Twenty-one countries go to the polls today, after voting has already closed in seven nations, including the UK.

The results will begin to emerge after 10pm on Sunday night.

Polls indicate the European Parliament could become more fragmented than ever, with a wave of populist and nationalist representatives expected to gain seats, many of which oppose their countries’ membership to the bloc.

However, mainstream parties are tipped to hold onto power in the 751-seat legislature that sits in both Brussels and Strasbourg.

As many as a third of all seats up for grabs could go to far-right and nationalist parties, but it remains to be seen as to whether they will be able to form a coherent opposition group in parliament.

The success of such groups, which want to see the EU’s power slashed and returned to national governments, could significantly alter the bloc’s economic and foreign policy direction.

The single largest party represented in the European parliament is expected to shift from Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats to Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini’s Northern League – a populist anti-immigration party.

“I don’t want to see a right-populist Europe that wants to destroy the idea of togetherness,” said Manfred Weber, the lead candidate of the Christian Democrat centre-right EPP group.

In France, a tight competition is underway with president Emmanuel Macron’s pro-European En Marche party vying for votes against far-right leader Marine le Pen.

Mr Macron’s popularity has waned against the backdrop of the populist yellow vest movement. He has called the elections “the most important since 1979 because the Union is facing an existential risk” from nationalists seeking to divide the bloc.

Britain’s protracted exit from the union, which led to Theresa May’s resignation this week, has delivered an unexpected election process for the country which now has a departure deadline of 31 October.

Polls indicate the anti-EU Brexit party, led by Nigel Farage, could emerge as the most popular single party, with Ms May’s Conservatives and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party predicted to suffer backlash over their handling of Brexit.

In Austria, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Sunday he hopes the elections will strengthen the centre rather than parties on the far right and left.

Austria is one of the countries where the vote also has importance to national politics, serving as a first test of support ahead of a national election in September following the collapse of Mr Kurz’s governing coalition a week ago.

In Belgium, a general election is taking place alongside the European vote, while Lithuanians will vote in the second round of their presidential election.

Spaniards in Catalonia are voting in European elections that include two high-profile separatist leaders who are running from jail and self-imposed exile.

Former Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont and his ex-No 2 Oriol Junqueras are both running on competing tickets of separatist parties for the European Parliament.

Mr Junqueras is in jail in Madrid while on trial on charges that include rebellion for his part in Catalonia’s attempt to secede from the rest of Spain in 2017. Mr Puigdemont is wanted in Spain and fled to Belgium.

Both have been allowed to run as candidates, but would face legal hurdles to actually become European Parliament members if elected.

Polls and recent election results show the 7.5 million residents of the wealthy Catalonia region are roughly split by the secession issue. It is highly unpopular in the rest of Spain.

Hungary‘s prime minister says he hopes the European Parliament election will bring a shift toward political parties that want to stop migration.

Viktor Orban said on Sunday after casting his vote at a school near his Budapest home that the issue of migration, which he believes is stoppable, “will reorganise the political spectrum in the European Union”.

In Slovakia a far-right party that has 14 seats in the country’s parliament is expected to win seats in the European legislature for the first time.

The People’s Party Our Slovakia openly admires the Nazi puppet state that the country was during the Second World War. Party members use Nazi salutes, blame Roma for crime, consider Nato a terror group and want the country out of the European Union.

The party received a boost in April after Slovakia’s Supreme Court dismissed a request by the country’s prosecutor general to ban it as an extremist group whose activities violate the Constitution.

Sunday promises to be a long night for election watchers – the last polls close at 11pm (10pm BST) in Italy, but the European Parliament plans to begin issuing estimates and projections hours earlier with the first official projection of the makeup of the new parliament at 11.15pm (10.15 BST).

As the dust settles on four days of elections, European leaders will begin the task of selecting candidates for the top jobs in the EU’s headquarters in Brussels. The leaders meet for a summit over dinner on Tuesday night.

Current European lawmakers’ terms end on 1 July and the new parliament will take their seats in Strasbourg the following day.

Additional reporting by AP and PA

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