A European Parliament election that could reshape the political order across the continent drew toward a close Sunday with the anti-immigrant far right projected to win in France, and Germany’s centrist governing party headed for heavy losses as well.
The four days of balloting across the 28 European Union countries were seen as a test of the influence of the nationalist, populist and hard-right movements that have swept the continent.
Exit polls in France indicated that Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party came out on top, in an astounding rebuke for French President Emmanuel Macron, who has made EU integration the heart of his presidency.
Exit polls indicated the party of German Chancellor Angela Merkel also suffered major losses.
With the stakes high, turnout across the bloc – not counting Britain, which is quitting the EU – was put at a preliminary 51 percent, a 20-year high. An estimated 426 million people were eligible to vote in what was considered the most important European Parliament election in decades. Full results were expected overnight.
The balloting, which began Thursday, pitted supporters of closer unity against those who consider the EU a meddlesome and bureaucratic presence and want to return power to national governments and sharply restrict immigration.
Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, a major figure among the anti-migrant hard-line nationalists, said that he felt a “change in the air” and that a victory by his right-wing League party would “change everything in Europe.”
Mainstream center-right and center-left parties were widely expected to hold on to power in the 751-seat legislature that sits in both Brussels and Strasbourg. But the nationalist and populist parties that are hostile to the EU were expected to make important gains that could complicate the workings of the Parliament.
In the first major exit poll, in Germany, the EU’s biggest country, governing parties were predicted to lose ground while the Greens were set for big gains. The far right was also expected to pick up slightly more support.
Germany’s Manfred Weber, the candidate of the European People’s Party, currently the biggest in the legislature, said in Berlin that the elections appeared to have weakened the political center.
He said it is “most necessary for the forces that believe in this Europe, that want to lead this Europe to a good future, that have ambitions for this Europe” to work together.
In France, Le Pen’s National Rally party said the expected result was a “clear punishment” for Macron and the EU itself.
Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian prime minister Viktor Orban, a possible ally of Salvini, said he hopes the election will bring a shift toward political parties that want to stop migration. The migration issue “will reorganize the political spectrum in the European Union,” he said.
The EU and its Parliament set trade policy on the continent, regulate agriculture, oversee antitrust enforcement and set monetary policy for 19 of the 28 nations sharing the euro currency.
Other countries voting on Sunday included Italy, Poland, Portugal, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Belgium and Lithuania.
Britain voted Thursday, taking part in the balloting even though it is planning to leave the EU, after the government missed its March 29 deadline to approve withdrawal terms. Its EU lawmakers would lose their jobs as soon as Brexit happens.
Europe has been roiled in the past few years by immigration from the Mideast and Africa and deadly attacks by Islamic extremists. It has also seen rising tensions over economic inequality and growing hostility toward the political establishment – sentiments not unlike those that got Donald Trump elected in the U.S.
Projections released by the Parliament last month showed the EPP bloc losing 37 of its 217 seats and the S&D group dropping from 186 seats to 149. On the far-right flank, the Europe of Nations and Freedom group was predicted to increase its bloc from 37 to 62 seats.
Proponents of stronger EU integration, led by Macron, argue that issues like climate change and reining in immigration are simply too big for any one country to tackle alone.
Macron, whose country has been rocked in recent months by the populist yellow vest movement, has called the elections “the most important since 1979 because the Union is facing an existential risk” from nationalists seeking to divide the bloc.
Once the elections are over, 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 Tuesday. Current European lawmakers’ terms end July 1, and the new parliament will be seated the following day.