‘The Center Did Hold:’ Key Takeaways From the E.U. Elections

European elections are often downplayed as “second-order,” low-stakes contests compared to national votes. The reality, however, is that the European elections are as much a domestic affair as any other. When European voters go to the polls to elect their 720 representatives of the European Parliament, as some 185 million did over the weekend in what was the second-largest election of the year, they do so with their domestic situation in mind. For many voters, this included concerns over issues such as the economy, immigration, and housing. While the outcome will influence what happens in Brussels over the next five years, it will also have a profound impact on what happens within each of the bloc’s 27 member states.

Nowhere was this more evident than in France, where President Emmanuel Macron announced a snap election shortly after exit polls showed his ruling Renaissance party suffering a crushing defeat at the hands of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally. (Though Le Pen is the leader of her party, she wasn’t standing in the E.U. elections; the National Rally’s list of European Parliament candidates was led by her lieutenant and presumed successor, Jordan Bardella.) In Macron’s announcement on Sunday night, he acknowledged that the results of the European elections were “not a good result for parties who defend Europe,” adding: “I could not, at the end of this day, act as if nothing was happening.”

Macron bets the house

By calling the vote, Macron has plunged the country into a state of political uncertainty. The election, which will be conducted in two phases on June 30 and July 7, will be held just weeks before the start of the Summer Olympics in Paris. While Macron will not be a candidate himself—the next presidential election isn’t until 2027—the outcome could have major implications for the remainder of his second and final term. A far-right victory of the kind seen overnight could result in Macron having to lead his country in “cohabitation” with Bardella as prime minister. In effect, Macron is confronting French voters with a stark choice: confront the far right or face the consequences of it in government. While some analysts have dubbed the move as smart and strategic, others have derided it as risky and even reckless.

Read More: This 28-Year-Old Is the New Face of Europe’s Far Right

“Macron choosing to dissolve the Assemblée Nationale is a huge gamble,” says Georgina Wright, a senior fellow and deputy director for international studies at Paris’s Institut Montaigne. “Many are fed up with Macronisme. I’m really not sure his bet will pay off.”

A 'sobering' result for Europe's biggest powers

This wasn’t just a French phenomenon. A number of European countries saw their far right parties make considerable, and in some cases even historic, gains. Initial projections suggest the nationalist right could win nearly a quarter of the seats in the next European Parliament, up from the fifth they held in 2019. While they won’t be the most powerful grouping in the legislature—Europe’s conservatives continue to be the largest—it does mean that they will be able to wield considerably more influence.

The far right’s rise was particularly evident within the bloc’s biggest powers. In Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) secured an estimated 16% of the vote—putting the extreme-right party behind the opposition center-right Christian Democrats (30%) but ahead of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s ruling Social Democrats, who with 14% of the vote recorded their worst result in more than a century. While the AfD’s performance was worse than polls initially predicted—likely owing to a string of recent scandals, one of which resulted in its ouster from its far-right European Parliament grouping—it was nonetheless one of its best nationwide results to date. For Scholz’s Social Democrats and their coalition partners in the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats, however, it was a humiliating defeat—one that will undoubtedly put more pressure on their governing coalition as they prepare to face voters next year when German voters return to the polls for the country’s general election.

The result was “very, very sobering,” confessed the Social Democrats’ lead candidate Katarina Barley, who alongside Scholz was the face of the party’s election campaign. In the run-up to the vote, both leaders’ faces could be seen on bright red placards across the country, with campaign slogans such as “STOP THE SHIFT TO THE RIGHT” and “CLEAR COURSE IN STORMY TIMES.”

The major European leader who wasn’t humbled by this election was Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, whose nationalist Brothers of Italy scored a first-place finish in the European elections, cementing her position as a major power broker in Brussels.

A campaign poster of the German Social Democrats (SPD) shows German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and SPD member of the European Parliament Katarina Barley on May 6, 2024 in Berlin, Germany.<span class="copyright">Sean Gallup—Getty Images</span>
A campaign poster of the German Social Democrats (SPD) shows German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and SPD member of the European Parliament Katarina Barley on May 6, 2024 in Berlin, Germany.Sean Gallup—Getty Images

'The center did hold'

The far-right wasn’t universally victorious, however. In Poland, where the right-wing nationalist Law and Justice Party (PiS) was booted from national power last year, Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s centrist Civic Coalition triumphed. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ far-right Freedom party (PVV), which last year staged a shocking first-place finish in the country’s general election, only managed to come in second place behind the Labour-Green alliance.

“The whole narrative that this was going to be a radical right landslide—it just didn’t materialize like that,” Frans Timmermans, the leader of the Labour-Green alliance in the Dutch Parliament and former first vice president of the European Commission, tells TIME. Indeed, while the results show significant losses among the Green and Liberal groups in the European Parliament, the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) grouping and the Socialist and Democrats (S&D) continue to be the biggest forces in the legislature. “Although the shift is, globally-speaking, to the right,” Timmermans adds, “the center did hold.”

The limits of the far right's potency

If there is one thing that can limit the far right’s impact in Brussels, it will be its lack of cohesion. While Europe’s far-right parties have found common cause on issues such as immigration and climate denialism, there is little else that unites them. Their divisions have been magnified over the course of the European elections campaign—most notably, when Le Pen took the decision to expel the AfD from the far-right Identity and Democracy grouping in the European Parliament after its lead candidate told an Italian newspaper that members of the Nazi SS were not necessarily criminals. Whereas far-right leaders such as Le Pen, Wilders, and Meloni have all tried to soften their parties’ image in a bid to win greater power, the AfD has only grown more radical with time—a reality that could yet confine it to the political fringes.

But another factor that could determine the far right’s potency in the next European Parliament is how the legislature’s dominant conservatives choose to respond to their electoral surge. In the run-up to the vote, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen suggested that her European People’s Party grouping could be receptive to working with far-right parties so long as they are “pro-European, pro-Ukraine and pro-rule of law.

How influential the far-right will ultimately be “will depend on whether other parties think they need to accommodate some of their ideas,” Timmermans says. But given the performance of von der Leyen’s conservatives and the other groupings, he thinks the prospect of collaboration is unlikely.

Still, he warns that Europe’s mainstream parties shouldn’t count on Europe’s far-right parties to be disunited forever.

“Ideologically they’re getting more and more closer together,” Timmermans says, noting the influence of illiberal leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and the U.S.’s Donald Trump. “I think democratic parties should be well aware of that and should start thinking about a strategy to counter that with their own narrative and their own idea of society and not just by saying ‘they’re bad’ and ‘don’t support them.’”

Write to Yasmeen Serhan at yasmeen.serhan@time.com.