Nationalists will win more seats, but not enough to change Brussels directly
THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT has been dominated by a coalition of centre-right and centre-left parties since direct elections began in 1979. Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s right-wing Northern League party, sees this as a problem: he pledges to “free Europe” from Brussels’ domination. To that end, he has gathered a new alliance of Eurosceptic nationalist parties into what he hopes will be “a governing force and force for change”.
According to the latest polls, he may be disappointed. The current forecast suggests his coalition, the European Alliance of People and Nations, will come fourth in the vote, which takes place on May 23rd-26th. Even though nationalist parties are predicted to make significant gains since the last elections in 2014—winning an additional 61 seats in the 751-seat parliament to give Eurosceptic groups a combined 179 seats—this will not be enough to break the grip of the mainstream pro-EU “families”. They include the centre-right European People’s Party, the centre-left Socialists and Democrats group and the liberal Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE).
One problem for Mr Salvini is that the Eurosceptics are disunited: two other, smaller, anti-EU groups will sit in the next parliament. Another difficulty is that pro-European voices are also rising. ALDE is set to increase its share substantially.
Centre-left parties are seeing their support collapse across Europe—especially in Italy, France, and Germany—but only in Italy are nationalists the clear beneficiaries. In Britain, the ruling Conservative Party is set for a humiliation as it trails in fourth position. The biggest winner will be the new Brexit Party of Nigel Farage, but its gains appear to come mostly from the Eurosceptic UKIP, the winner of the election in 2014, which he once led. Whereas UKIP MEPs have mostly joined Mr Salvini’s alliance, the Brexit Party is a member of the rival Eurosceptic grouping, Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy.
Mr Salvini’s Northern League is set to account for about half of net Eurosceptic gains in the new parliament. Nationalists certainly feel the wind at their backs. The European Parliament will become more fractious. Eurosceptics’ gains may change political dynamics in their home countries, notably in Britain and Italy. More broadly, they are pushing some mainstream parties into becoming more hostile towards the EU. But they will find it hard to change directly the way business is conducted within the EU’s institutions.