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High Voter Turn Out For European Parliamentary Elections

NOEL KING, HOST:

Over the weekend, the European Union held parliamentary elections. And this morning, we're getting the results. Voter turnout was high, and it left the EU's traditional center splintered. OK. We're going to have two views from Europe this morning, starting in Rome with NPR's Sylvia Poggioli.

Hi, Sylvia.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

KING: So let's start with the 3,000-foot view of results across the European Union. Who gained and who lost?

POGGIOLI: Well, you know, the populists did well in some places, but there was no hard-right takeover of the EU Parliament. As you said, turnout was high - 51% compared to 43% five years ago. Many young pro-EU voters cast ballots for Greens Parties. They did very well in northern Europe.

The populists won enough to deprive the center-left and center-right parties of the parliamentary majority they held for 40 years. So the centrists will have to create a wider alliance with other parties, but they've ruled out a coalition with the hard-right. In the end, the populists will get only around 25% of Parliament's seats. Nevertheless, there were some big populist victories. Here's Italy's Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the victorious hard-right league.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATTEO SALVINI: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: He said, "not only is the League the top party in Italy, Marine Le Pen is the top party in France. Nigel Farage is the top party in the U.K." So Italy, France, the U.K. - it's a sign of a Europe that's changing. In fact, Marine Le Pen's hard-right party came in ahead of French President Emmanuel Macron's party. That's seen as an embarrassment for the champion of a stronger EU. And Italy's League is now the biggest party in the EU Parliament, winning 34%.

KING: What is going on? What helped these far-right populist groups win so many seats this time around?

POGGIOLI: Anger at EU bureaucrats for failing to deal with the economic stagnation and high unemployment in southern Europe after the global financial crisis and security concerns after several terrorist attacks. But most of all, it's the huge migrant influx over the last several years. Populist parties whipped up fear and anxiety with slogans like, invasion, and the threat to Europe's Judeo-Christian values. One of the most outspoken populists on this issue is Hungary's autocratic Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose party scored more than 50% in the vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER VIKTOR ORBAN: We reject migration. And we would like to see leaders in position of European Unions who reject the migration, who would like to stop it and not to manage it.

KING: All right. So these far-right nationalist parties gained some seats in this election. What do they do with them now?

POGGIOLI: Well, they'll probably be more spoilers than promoters of radical change because they're divided on many issues. Italy's Salvini wants looser rules on budgetary discipline, but German and other northern European populists reject that. Salvini wants other EU states to take in many asylum-seekers who landed in Italy, but Hungary's Orban and other east Europeans say, no way.

And there's Russia. Salvini and Le Pen admire Vladimir Putin, while the ruling populist party in Poland and other east European parties are wary of Russia's aims. So populists won't be able to reshape the European Union in their image, but they could obstruct and seriously slow down the legislative process.

KING: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome.

Thanks, Sylvia.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Noel.

KING: All right. Let's go over to the United Kingdom, where the new Brexit Party stormed to victory. Outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservative Party suffered an historic defeat, and NPR's Frank Langfitt is traveling outside of London.

Hey, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.

KING: So we said that the Brexit Party did well. How well did they do exactly? And how did they pull this off?

LANGFITT: They did a fabulous job. They - most of the ballots are now counted, and they got over 30% of the vote. Remember, this is a party that hadn't been around - only been around for a number of weeks, really. The ruling Conservative's a completely different story. They're under 10%, ending up in fifth place. This is the worst showing by the Conservative Party since the 1830s. The other major party, Labour - they did badly as well. They ended up in third place.

And I think what's really going on here, Noel, is that neither of these major parties ever staked out a clear position on Brexit. We've had paralysis here for three years politically in the country. And this left space for the Brexit Party and, of course, Nigel Farage - he's a very charismatic leader of the party - to basically take this ground and scoop up lots and lots of voters who want to get out of the EU and, frankly, want to get out of it now.

KING: I mean, it doesn't change the fact that British politics broadly are still in chaos. What are...

LANGFITT: It is.

KING: ...The lessons from this vote?

LANGFITT: You know, I think the lessons here are voters want clarity. They want to know exactly what a party is going to do at this crucial moment in the country's history. And the parties that had clear positions on Brexit - like the Brexit Party - did very well.

What's interesting is that you're going to now see, I think, candidates for prime minister on the Tory side - they are going to be talking a lot more about the idea of a no-deal Brexit, of just walking away from the European Union, even though every economist you talk to - for the most part - says that's going to cause a lot of damage. But both parties, I think - what you've seen after, you know, years of fudging and kind of fumbling, they've got to stake out clear positions on this big issue.

KING: Well, going into this, we heard that this vote was seen as a proxy for a second referendum on Brexit. Given that the Brexit Party did so well, does that mean that Britons would vote to leave the EU again if they had the chance?

LANGFITT: No, not necessarily. And while I think the Brexit Party deserves a ton of credit for what they've done - they've only been around - they've been around for less than two months. So what we have is, three years on, still an incredibly polarized United Kingdom and no path forward. So even as we have these votes, you see just how people are so set against each other on this huge issue.

KING: NPR's Frank Langfitt outside of London.

Thanks, Frank.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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