European elections: Loss of support for continent's traditional political powerhouses

French far-right tops European poll in blow to Emmanuel Macron, while UK’s Conservatives suffer heavy losses

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The Grand Coalition of centrist EU parties has been handed a strong defeat in European elections.

Both the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and centre-right European People's Party look set to lose seats to the fringes as early results and projections are released.

Exit polls suggested that the French National Rally, led by far-right figurehead Marine Le Pen, would secure more seats than the centrist movement of Mr Macron, who has been the greatest champion of a more closely integrated Europe.

The projected result was just one of several that suggested a difficult day for the established powers of European democracy.

Anti-migrant populists and environmental parties emerged as the biggest winners in elections to the 28-nation parliament.

The two main powers from the centre of European politics may fail for the first time to secure more than 50 per cent of the vote, signalling the rise of a new era of fragmented politics within the EU.

Turnout was at a 20-year high of just above 50 per cent as voters in the UK turned to the new Brexit Party and the Greens secured their biggest gains in years across the continent - a projected 71 seats. Belgium and Luxembourg saw over 84 per cent turnout, with lowest turnout among Slovakia (22.7 per cent) and Slovenia (28 per cent).

Right-wing populist parties have topped polls in two of the biggest member states, Italy and the UK, where predictions suggest a clear win for the pro-Brexit party led by outspoken eurosceptic Nigel Farage.

Pro-EU parties were still projected to win two-thirds of the seats, with the centre-right European People’s Party group likely to win most seats at a projected 182.

Brexit Party break out in UK

The shift to euroscepticism has been most keenly felt in the UK, which voted to leave the world’s largest trading bloc in 2016 but continues to grapple with how it will do so with the minimum of trouble.

The UK made a late decision to hold elections after it became clear that its original plans to leave the EU in March had to be delayed because of deadlock within Parliament.

Senior officials in the ruling Conservative party, who are focused on a leadership battle after the resignation on Friday of Prime Minister Theresa May, are preparing for disaster. The outgoing Prime Minister called her party's trouncing "very disappointing", saying the results showed the need to reach a conclusion on Brexit.

Overall, of the 64 European Parliament members from the UK declared so far, the Brexit Party won 28, Labour 10 and the Conservatives only three.

Mr Farage said the two main parties “could learn a big message” from the results.

Le Pen trumps Macron

In France, Mr Macron had been in a close-run and bitter battle with Ms Le Pen, who he vanquished in French presidential elections in May 2017.

She has spoken of preserving European civilisation from the threat of “massive immigration”.

After the projected results were announced, Ms Le Pen said: “I see this as a victory for the people, who with pride and dignity have taken back power.”

Mr Macron had billed the elections as the most perilous moment for Europe for 75 years, as centrist parties challenged the rise of populists who wanted to limit the political powers of the EU.

“There is, of course, some disappointment,” a presidential official said. “But the score is absolutely honourable compared to how incumbents did in previous European elections.”

Macron's EU party, La République En Marche "will undoubtedly work with the Greens" to pass legislation, said French government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye on Monday.

Germany’s ruling coalition led by Chancellor Angela Merkel looked likely to suffer a loss of support in the projections, with a big boost for the Greens and a smaller rise for the far-right.

The poll for public broadcaster ARD suggested a “green wave” that could push climate and environmental issues up the agenda in Brussels.

The champions of the European project, led by Mr Macron, want to build and strengthen unity among states that emerged out of the wreckage of the Second World War.

Populism on the rise

But the rise of anti-migration parties and leaders sceptical of the European project threatens to restrain leaders who want a stronger union with more integrated armies, policies and economies.

Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, regarded as a unifying force among the anti-migrant hard-line nationalists, said he felt that a victory by his right-wing League party would “change everything in Europe”.

His supporters want to limit migration and take back power for national parliaments.

In Hungary, the eurosceptic premier Viktor Orban called for a stop to migration.

Pro-European parties have been given hope by apparently strong showings in the Netherlands and Ireland, and a reversal for the far-right in Denmark.

It appeared that the seat losses for the established parties were largely taken by liberals and the Greens, limiting the far-right’s ability to influence policy.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s centre-right party was projected to secure substantial backing from the electorate, with the far-right Freedom Party finishing a distant third, according to polling by Austria’s public TV broadcaster.

Migration has featured as a key policy issue for Europe since 2014, along with growing disillusionment with the centrist parties that have controlled the Parliament since the first pan-European vote 40 years ago.

The result will usher in weeks of bargaining among parties to form a stable majority in the parliament, and among national leaders to choose successors to top EU officials.

Decisions by the EU are decided by a three-way system of the parliament, the bureaucracy and the council of national leaders, with continent-wide laws subject to deal-making between the groups.