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EU’s von der Leyen seeks centrist allies after far-right election gains

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European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen has begun trying to piece together a coalition after the far right gained ground in a European Parliament election, spurring French President Emmanuel Macron to call a snap national vote.

Lead candidate for the European conservatives in the EU election Ursula von der Leyen reacts to the announcement of the first provisional results for the European Parliament elections, at the European Parliament building, in Brussels, Belgium, June 9, 2024. Picture: Reuters, Piroschka van de Wouw

By Andrew Gray, Michel Rose and Julia Payne

BRUSSELS – European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen began trying to piece together a coalition on Monday after the far right gained ground in a European Parliament election, spurring French President Emmanuel Macron to call a snap national vote.

Centrist parties won a majority of seats in the four-day election, but the rightward shift may make it tougher to pass new legislation to respond to security challenges, climate change or industrial competition from China and the US.

Von der Leyen, the German president of the European Union’s powerful executive body, emerged strengthened from the election across 27 countries that concluded on Sunday, as her centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) gained seats.

But to secure a second five-year term, von der Leyen needs the support of a majority of the EU’s national leaders and a working majority in the European Parliament.

Among the leaders, Macron is leaning towards backing von der Leyen, two sources told Reuters. While he was diminished by a heavy defeat to the far right in the European poll, the French president remains a key figure among EU leaders.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, also weakened by a poor election result, said on Monday he favoured a quick decision on the EU leadership posts. While he did not endorse von der Leyen publicly, his government is widely expected to support her.

“There is no reason to take too long with this,” Scholz told reporters in Berlin.

In the Parliament, the parties that backed von der Leyen last time – the EPP, socialists and liberals – won 400 seats in the 720-member chamber, according to provisional results.

That is widely regarded in Brussels as too tight a majority for comfort, so von der Leyen may also reach out to the Greens, who suffered heavy losses, and Italy’s nationalist Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, with whom she has worked closely.

However, the socialists, liberals and Greens have all declared they will not work with the far right, making von der Leyen’s coalition-building efforts extremely delicate.

Meloni also kept her options open on Monday, saying it was too early to decide on a second term for von der Leyen.

Von der Leyen said she would start by trying to rebuild the parliamentary bedrock of her last term.

“Throughout my election campaign, I worked hard to build a broad and effective majority in favour of a strong Europe,” she said after a meeting of leaders of her CDU party in Berlin.

“For this reason, we will now approach the large political families who also worked well with us in the last mandate.”

On Sunday night, she said she aims to work with those who are “pro-European, pro-Ukraine and pro-rule of law” – a description that she applies to Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, but not to some other far-right parties.

RIGHTWARD SHIFT

The provisional results showed the EPP winning 186 seats, with the socialists on 135 and the liberals on 79.

Nationalist, populist and EU-sceptical parties are on course to win about a quarter of seats in the EU assembly.

Political analysts attribute the overall shift to the right to rising costs of living, concerns about migration and the cost of the green transition, as well as the war in Ukraine – worries that nationalist and populist parties have seized upon.

However, exactly how much clout these parties will wield will depend on their ability to overcome differences. They are currently split between two political families, and some parties and lawmakers for now stand outside these groupings.

In France, the far-right National Rally of Marine Le Pen won more than 31% of the vote, trouncing Macron’s centrist Renaissance party – which scored just 14.6% – and prompting his surprise move to call a national parliamentary election.

In Germany, the far-right Alternative for Germany took second place with 15.9% of the vote – ahead of Scholz’s Social Democrats, who garnered 13.9% in their worst-ever result.

Meloni, by contrast, was boosted as her party came first in Italy with more than 28.7% of the vote.

In Poland, Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s centrist Civic Coalition, a member of the EPP, came first. In Spain as well, the centre-right People’s Party, also part of the EPP, came out on top, outperforming Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

The European Parliament co-decides with the EU’s national governments on laws proposed by the European Commission to govern the bloc of 450 million people.

– REUTERS

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