* Spain: opposition leader forced out
* France: an ‘earthquake’
* Britain: a boost for Scottish independence?
* Ireland: deputy pm forced out, coalition in danger
* The Netherlands, Denmark and Hungary: gains for the far right
Stunning victories in European Parliament elections by nationalist, euroskeptic parties from France and Britain have left the European Union facing a giant policy dilemma – while threatening the stability of national governments and mainstream political parties in many member countries.
Anti-establishment parties of the far right and hard left more than doubled their representation, harnessing a mood of anger with Brussels over austerity, mass unemployment and immigration.
While the center-right and center-left will continue to control more than half of the 751 seats in the EU legislature, they will face an unprecedented challenge from critics determined to stop business as usual in the 28-nation bloc.
The political fallout may be felt more strongly in national politics than at the EU level. Indeed, several major national political parties have been rocked by the results.
SPAIN: OPPOSITION LEADER FORCED OUT
Spain’s Socialist opposition leader Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said on Monday he was stepping down after the party had its worst-ever election result on Sunday with an upstart rival leftist group grabbing 8 per cent of the vote.
Recession-weary voters, unhappy with public-sector wage cuts, layoffs and corruption scandals also punished the ruling center-right People’s Party.
Together, the two parties that have dominated Spanish politics since the country returned to democracy in the 1970s, took less than 50 per cent of the vote. A brand new leftist party led by 35-year-old university professor Pablo Iglesias was the big winner, taking 8 per cent of the vote and five seats in the European Parliament.
The Socialists lost nine of their 23 seats in the European Parliament while the ruling centre-right People’s Party lost eight of its 24 seats. Together, the two parties that have dominated Spanish politics since the country returned to democracy in the 1970s, took less than 50 per cent of the vote.
“It’s clear that we haven’t regained voters’ confidence,” Mr. Rubalcaba said in a televised news conference. “There has to be new leadership that takes on change.”
FRANCE: AN ‘EARTHQUAKE’
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls called the breakthrough by Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration, anti-euro National Front, which topped a national vote for the first time and pushed his Socialists into third place, a political “earthquake.”
He sought to counter her immediately by offering more tax cuts to spur an economy which is flatlining.
Mr. Valls, after an emergency cabinet meeting, stressed France would still make the budget savings needed to bring its public deficit within EU limits. But, in a potential sign of clashes ahead, left-wingers in the ruling Socialist party said the poll results vindicated their opposition to such cuts.
The anti-immigrant, anti-EU party of Marine Le Pen finished first in France with 25 per cent of the vote, winning its first ever nationwide poll in a slap both to ruling Socialists and opposition conservatives President François Hollande’s Socialist Party scored 13.98 per cent, its worst ever performance in an EU election, while the center-right UMP stood at 20.80 per cent, further behind the FN than predicted by pre-vote opinion polls.
France is one of the EU’s founder members and the weakness of President leaves German Chancellor Angela Merkel without a strong partner for the next leg of integration which economists say is vital to underpin the euro currency but which leaves voters cold.
“It will be more about pursuing policies that resonate with the people,” Ms. Merkel said after her conservative bloc emerged as the strongest party grouping in Germany.
“They are less interested in the issue of whether there should be treaty change or not, but rather whether Europe is making a difference in their own lives,” she added, noting high jobless rates in some countries had damaged trust in the EU.
A German-led drive to cut EU states’ debts in response to the economic crisis which engulfed the bloc in 2010 is blamed by many for deepening recessions and delaying recovery.
Ms. Merkel called the far right and populist advances “remarkable and regrettable” and said France needed to focus on competitiveness, jobs and economic growth to overcome voters’ disenchantment – a message echoed by French analysts.
“The legitimacy of Europe is weakened, the legitimacy of France in Europe is weakened further,” said Dominique Moisi of the French Institute of International Relations.
“To function, Europe needs a strong balance between France and Germany. But France is moving the way of Italy or Greece in economic terms and moving the way of Britain in its relationship with Europe.”
BRITAIN: A BOOST FOR SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE?
In London, Britain’s upstart euroskeptic party vowed Monday to build on its historic victory in the European Parliament polls, expressing confidence that it is on course to break into Britain’s Parliament for the first time during next year’s national elections.
The UK Independence Party, which has rode to prominence on a wave of anti-immigration sentiment, scored a sweeping win in the European polls, picking up almost 28 per cent of votes to beat Cameron’s Conservatives and the opposition Labour Party.
It was the first time in over a century that a national vote has not been won by either the Conservatives or Labour, as voters spurned mainstream parties across Europe to embrace euroskeptics and nationalist politicians.
The Daily Telegraph paper called the results the “biggest shock to the British political system in a generation.”
In a victory speech, UKIP leader Nigel Farage disparaged the main parties as “like goldfish that have just been tipped out of the bowl onto the floor.”
The win is a milestone for UKIP, which wants to pull Britain out of the 28-nation bloc but currently has no role in Britain’s Parliament. Mr. Farage said he now plans to get “a good number of UKIP [parliamentarians] elected next year.”
Mr. Cameron’s Conservatives came in third place, narrowly beaten by Labour. But the results were most disastrous for the Liberal Democrats, the left-leaning junior partner in the coalition government. The Lib Dems’ leader and Britain’s deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, said he would not capitulate to strong pressure for him to resign.
Mr. Cameron said he has drawn lessons from UKIP’s win and understood that Britons are “deeply disillusioned” with the EU.
He said his Conservatives will stick to their pledge to offer a referendum on Britain’s EU membership if elected at the next general elections, rebuffing Mr. Farage’s call for an early referendum on an EU exit. However, some analysts said UKIP’s surge may force the Prime Minister to toughen his stance on Europe and could scare more pro-European voters in Scotland into opting to leave Britain in a September referendum.
IRELAND: DEPUTY PM FORCED OUT, COALITION IN DANGER
Irish deputy prime minister Eamon Gilmore said on Monday he will quit as leader of the junior government Labour party, in a move that could destabilise the coalition and its austerity programme following a major election setback and raises new doubts about whether Ireland’s two-party government can survive its full five-year term to 2016.
Alongside Prime Minister Enda Kenny, Gilmore led Ireland out of an international bailout last year and there have been signs of economic recovery, but it is not being felt by large numbers of voters who hammered Labour in the elections at the weekend.
The collapse in support at local and European polls prompted eight members of Labour’s parliamentary party, representing almost a fifth of the grouping, to submit a motion of no confidence in Gilmore’s leadership.
Labour’s support collapsed to just 7 per cent in Friday’s vote for European Parliament and local council seats, a performance that would decimate the party if repeated in a national election.
ITALY: A RARE VICTORY FOR THE STATUS QUO
Center-left Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi bucked the trend of anti-EU, anti-incumbent votes, scoring a stunning 41 per cent to beat populist Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment 5-Star Movement by a wide margin, with disgraced ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia trailing a weak third.
Renzi vowed to use his mandate to press for an easing of the EU’s budgetary straitjacket to allow more public investment in growth and jobs, posing a policy challenge for Merkel, the guardian of fiscal orthodoxy.
THE NETHERLANDS, DENMARK AND HUNGARY: GAINS FOR THE FAR RIGHT
The anti-Islam, euroskeptic Dutch Freedom Party of Geert Wilders – which plans an alliance with the French National Front’s Le Pen – underperformed but still finished joint second in terms of seats behind a pro-European centrist opposition party.
In Denmark, the anti-immigration far right People’s Party topped the poll.
In Hungary, the extreme-right Jobbik, widely accused of racism and anti-Semitism, finished second.
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