Battered EU Centre Holds Off Populist Surge in Vote

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Battered EU Centre Holds Off Populist Surge in Vote

The tussle for top EU jobs got under way Monday after European Parliament elections delivered a fragmented result, with gains for eurosceptic and green parties as the traditional mainstream groups took a hit.

The main centre-right and centre-left groups lost their combined majority in the 751-seat parliament in the face of a challenge by eurosceptic and nationalist forces of Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini and Nigel Farage -- although the populist wave was less than some had predicted.

There were big wins for the Greens, who posted double digit scores across Europe's biggest countries, and the Liberals, with both parties likely to play a major role in any future parliamentary coalition.

Each previous EU election since the first in 1979 has seen turnout fall, but figures from across the 28-nation bloc were at a 20-year high of 51 percent, suggesting this year's culture clash has mobilised both populists and those who oppose them.

Boosted by French President Emmanuel Macron's Renaissance Movement, the Liberal ALDE group will finish with more than 100 seats, and it is expected to push hard to win the plum European Commission presidency for its candidate Margrethe Vestager.

Britain will send a large contingent of eurosceptic MEPs to a parliament they want to leave in a few months, after Farage's single-issue Brexit Party trounced the main parties, while Salvini's League was Italy's biggest party and Le Pen's National Rally squeaked ahead of Macron.

Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg bank, said the vote had left Europe "slightly more fragmented and polarised", and there had been a shift from the two main groups to the liberals and greens, partly as a response to the rise of the populist right.

"To simplify a complex picture: whereas some voters care a lot about migration, many others see climate change as the key issue," Schmieding wrote in a briefing note.

- Looking for broad appeal -

As the dust settles on the vote, attention now turns to the fight to land the top EU roles for the next five years: presidencies of the commission and the European Council, the speaker of parliament, the high representative for foreign policy and head of the European Central Bank.

These jobs will be picked by the national leaders of EU governments, with the first formal clash set for Tuesday, when they will meet for a summit dinner in Brussels.

But Macron fired the starting pistol on the haggling Monday as he announced a series of one-on-one meetings with other leaders in the hours before the summit, notably Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez -- one of Sunday's big winners -- and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Merkel has said she will back Manfred Weber, the lead candidate of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), which suffered significant losses but remained parliament's biggest bloc with 180 seats.

But Macron is set against Weber -- a longstanding MEP seen as lacking in charisma or appeal beyond the corridors of Brussels -- and other national leaders share his scepticism.

With the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) projected to win 147 seats, down from 185, the two mainstream parties will no longer have a majority and will have to reach out to the liberals and greens to pass legislation -- and approve a new commission president.

Sebastien Maillard of the Delors Institute said the mixed result of the election meant no political group was strong enough to force through their pick to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker at the head of the commission.

"No lead candidate can claim to have a majority, so that opens the game up," Maillard told AFP.

"A man or woman must be found who has enough broad appeal that they can achieve a consensus between these forces."

- Domestic repercussions -

Across Europe, the various populist, eurosceptic and right-wing parties won more than 150 seats between them, but with differing platforms and priorities, form no coherent parliamentary coalition.

The results have had a dramatic knock-on effect in domestic politics, with Merkel forced to call crisis talks with her embattled coalition after suffering a drubbing at the polls, where the Greens beat junior government partner the Social Democratic Party to second place.

In Greece, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has called early elections after a thumping for his Syriza party, while Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is set to be ousted in a no-confidence vote on Monday.

Source: AFP