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Europe at a crossroads as European Parliament elections reveal polarization

Europe has just concluded one of the world's largest elections, for members of the European Parliament, which oversees trade deals, funds defense and regulates the economy. The election revealed that Europe’s long-dominant centrist parties are losing ground. Nick Schifrin talks to Heather Conley of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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  • Judu Woodruff:

    Today, a group of government leaders met in Brussels to begin crucial talks to choose who will head the European Union.

    Europe has just concluded one of the largest elections in the world, with 350 million eligible voters across 28 countries choosing members of the European Parliament. The body oversees trade deals, funds European defense, and regulates the European economy.

    And, as Nick Schifrin reports, the election revealed that Europe's long-dominant centrist parties are weakening.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Europe is at a crossroads, and the parliamentary election results leave a polarized continent more fragmented.

    In France, the National Rally Party won the most seats. Founded by a man accused of denying the Holocaust and discriminating against Muslims, it now speaks to French upset with immigration.

  • Woman (through translator):

    I am really happy because, today, we're giving France back to the French people.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the United Kingdom, the four-month-old Brexit Party's entire platform is its name. And it trounced the two traditional governing parties that have failed to deliver Brexit.

  • Woman:

    We are not going to go away until Britain has left the E.U.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, in Italy, the populist League Party won in a landslide. Its hard-line leader, Matteo Salvini, said anti-E.U. parties winning 25 percent of Parliament represented a referendum on Europe's future.

  • Man (through translator):

    It's the sign of a Europe that is changing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But Europe is not changing only to the right. In Germany, the two ruling parties had their worst national election results since World War II. And the centrist, pro-European Green Party won more than 20 percent of the vote, its best ever result.

  • Man (through translator):

    The people in Germany, the people in Europe have voted for climate protection and for European solidarity.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    A green wave extended up to Finland over to Ireland down to Portugal, and back to Belgium. Those pro-European candidates will combine with Emmanuel Macron's party in France, and smaller pro-European parties in the U.K., to keep the majority of Parliament pro-E.U.

    But it's a thin majority, and pro-European parties need to unite, said Manfred Weber, leader of the center-right European People's Party.

  • Manfred Weber:

    From now on, those who want to have a strong European Union have to join their forces.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And for more on the European Parliament elections and the fate of Europe, we turn to Heather Conley, senior vice president and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe during the George W. Bush administration.

    Welcome back to "NewsHour." Thank you very much.

  • Heather Conley:

    Great to be with you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's start big picture.

    We saw a weakening of the center-left and the center-right parties that have dominated European politics for decades. Does that mean the European Union, the European experiment itself, is getting weaker?

  • Heather Conley:

    Well, the European unity that was once held by these two traditional parties, the center-right and the center-left, that order is ending.

    So there is some new organic forces coming into play. Certainly, the far right is here to stay. They earned 25 percent of the vote. But there is a new exciting force that is coming to the forefront, the liberals, the centrists, the Green Party.

    And so there is a regeneration. But what this means right now is that there is total fragmentation, that really no one party can hold a majority. Now it will take two, three, even four parties to put forward a majority.

    And European leaders don't know how to do that type of complexity at the European level. So, we are in some unchartered territory. It's exciting, but probably not the excitement that those 28 European leaders thought they would have.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    No, it usually isn't these days for Europe.

    You mentioned how the populists did get about 25 percent. There were fears that that number would be higher, though. And so, in some ways, because the pro-European parties still have a majority in the European Parliament, as you and I were talking earlier, does this mean that this election is a little bit more about continuity than it would be about change?

  • Heather Conley:

    It will feel like there's less change because now it's just going to take three to four political groupings to come together, and they will still hold that center.

    There's still a two-thirds majority that's very pro-E.U., but that 25 percent can disrupt, they can prevent the E.U. from going forward. The problem is, those pro-E.U. forces have very different ideas about how to lead, what's important in trade and the economy and migration.

    So there's going to be some very interesting conversations. We saw the first one this evening. When E.U. leaders met, they really couldn't agree on much. So, this may be a long, hot, complicated summer to figure out the most important six new positions across the E.U. this summer.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Many of these elections, as you know, are about the countries themselves and kind of a referendum on the leaders in those countries.

    Let's zoom in a little bit. Italy. Matteo Salvini, deputy prime minister, critics call him authoritarian, does he emerge as more strong after these elections?

  • Heather Conley:

    He has certainly emerged as the dominant political force in Italy.

    And what he was trying to do was, using this — his acceleration of popularity in Italy and create basically a pan-European far-right group, merging with France's Marine Le Pen and others in the E.U. to cobble together this far-right group.

    It didn't work quite as to plan. And what's so hard about these groups, they're very nationalistic. They don't agree on very much. So his sort of proclaimed great bloc wasn't as great as he anticipated. But, again, at home, today, Matteo Salvini was already pushing the E.U. on its economic policies.

    He wants to grow Italian debt. He wants a lot of relief for Italian banks. And the E.U. basically said today, no, you have to stick to the rules. So he's going to challenge the E.U. quite a bit.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Germany. Angela Merkel, quickly, obviously, the glue, as many people believe, that is holding Europe together.

    A lot of turmoil inside her coalition, but she's trying to stay in power for the next two years?

  • Heather Conley:

    Yes, that glue is going through a very difficult political transition.

    Angela Merkel will stay, she tells us, until 2021. She was hoping that her heir apparent would be ready for that leadership. This election showed that her party and the new leader is not quite ready.

    And now her — Merkel's coalition partner is now the third largest party. It could almost be the fourth party. Again, that old post-World War II political structures are just giving way. And if Germany can't find a path forward, Europe can't find path forward, so it's so important.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And just quickly, in the time we have left, that last point is so key.

    What should Americans know, what should Americans care about these leaders that we're talking about and these elections?

  • Heather Conley:

    Well, as we prepare for President Trump to visit Europe on the 75th anniversary of D-Day, Europe is so vital to America's economic prosperity, jobs, our economic growth, as well as to our security, which is why we have U.S. forces there.

    It helps ensure America's security. So Europe is very important. We have lost so much blood, so much treasure. It's a project that we have to keep fighting for. And there are a lot of ghosts that are coming back that we don't want to see.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Heather Conley, a former senior State Department official in the George W. Bush foundation and Center for Strategic and International Studies senior fellow, thank you so much.

  • Heather Conley:

    Thank you.

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