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European parliamentary election results offer a glimpse into EU priorities

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Far right is making big gains both here in Germany and today in the European Parliament. That's the takeaway from the elections in the 27 European Union member states that wrapped up over the weekend. The advances come after issues from migration to climate change have frustrated many voters here. But center-right parties still hold the most seats. Here's European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

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URSULA VON DER LEYEN: We will build a bastion against the extremes from the left and from the right. We will stop them.

SCHMITZ: To better understand these election results and what they mean, we're joined by Sudha David-Wilp. She's the Berlin office director of the German Marshall Fund, a nonpartisan American think tank. Good morning, Sudha.

SUDHA DAVID-WILP: Good morning, Rob.

SCHMITZ: So we just heard from the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, saying, we will stop them. She's talking about the far-right and Eurosceptic parties that fared well as expected. Will she?

DAVID-WILP: Well, that depends because I do think a rightward shift in the European Parliament will make it harder for the EU to achieve certain goals, such as spending on innovation, on joint defense projects, and also EU enlargement because by nature, the far-right parties are Eurosceptic.

SCHMITZ: The other question I have about her, about Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president - how likely is it that she holds onto her job after this election?

DAVID-WILP: If you look at the preliminary numbers, she does have a majority when it comes to the mainstream parties if she just relies on the groups that are supporting her right now. But she does need 361 votes from 720. And it's not a given because when it actually comes down to the vote, there could be some people that wobble and jump off the Ursula von der Leyen train.

And even before that, the ministers and the council, so EU leaders, need to decide on whether she gets a second chance at being president, and that's not for certain. All bets are kind of off, especially since France's Macron has called for new elections.

SCHMITZ: And if not von der Leyen, who might take that job?

DAVID-WILP: Well, people are floating around the idea of Mario Draghi, who is a well-respected Italian leader who served as ECB president and also former Prime Minister of Italy. And he's putting together a report right now on how the EU can be more competitive, something that's quite important for the EU, as von der Leyen said that she wants a geopolitical Europe, and Europe is finding itself sort of squeezed economically between China and the U.S. right now.

SCHMITZ: Let's go to domestic issues in the EU, which I think sort of helped the - fuel the popularity of these far-right parties. One of those topics was unchecked migration into the EU. You know, I'm wondering how these election results, this sort of slow rise of the far right in the EU, will change how the EU approaches that thorny issue.

DAVID-WILP: You know, one would think with the anniversary of D-Day just behind us and the NATO summiting up that voters would think about Europe's place in the world and what kind of Europe would be necessary for the next five years as Europe finds itself in a hard place economically between China and the United States. There is the biggest land war on the continent since World War II.

But at the end, it really was also a reflection of national sentiments, such as migration and inflation, as you point out, which helped opposition right-wing parties all across Europe, especially in the big ones - in France and Germany. I mean, Schulz's party, the SPD took a beating, and - as did the Greens. And the AfD prevailed despite a lot of scandals that happened recently. But I think the killing of a police officer about a week ago must have helped them at the polls at the last minute.

SCHMITZ: AfD being the far-right party here in Germany. You mentioned Ukraine. You know, what does this mean - this election result mean for European security as it relates to NATO and support for Ukraine?

DAVID-WILP: You know, the far right in the Parliament will definitely inhibit cooperation when it comes to joint defense spending. And by nature, these parties are Eurosceptic and also soft on Russia. Not everyone - like, someone like Meloni, who you can maybe characterize, from Italy, as being a leader of the new far right.

But, you know, certainly parties, even to the right of her, are definitely more softer on Russia, and that will be hard for the EU to muster up funding for Ukraine's defense and not even thinking about, for example, reconstruction, which will also be a major responsibility of the next EU leadership.

SCHMITZ: There are many changes ahead here in Europe. That's Sudha David-Wilp, senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund. Thanks, Sudha.

DAVID-WILP: Thanks, Rob. Great speaking with you just now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.