BRUSSELS (AFP) - EU leaders struggled for a response on Tuesday to a dismal European vote that saw dramatic gains by radical anti-establishment parties, with Britain, Germany and France urging EU reform.
The anti-EU surge proves the European Union is “too big and too bossy", said British Prime Minister David Cameron on arriving for an informal summit to take stock of the election disaster.
The vote “is a clear message that we cannot just shrug off... and carry on as before,” he added.
“The EU has got too big, too bossy, too interfering and needs to concentrate on growth and jobs.” France’s President Francois Hollande, who suffered a humiliating thrashing at the hands of the far-right National Front, also took a swipe at Brussels.
“Europe must take heed of what happened in France,” he said after the National Front topped the vote and left Mr Hollande’s ruling Socialists in third place with a mere 14 per cent.
Final results of the four-day vote are yet to come but estimates show anti-EU parties winning between 20 and 25 per cent, leaving the mainstream parties still wielding a comfortable majority.
In opening remarks, European Council chairman Herman Van Rompuy said “overall, voters sent a strong message” though “the wider picture is a mix of continuity and change”.
Also on the leaders’ dinner menu – and perhaps just as difficult to digest – will be tough talks on choosing new leaders for the different Brussels bureaucracies, in particular the presidency of the powerful European Commission.
Germany’s Angela Merkel and Hungary’s Viktor Orban stepped into the talks, however, publicly differing over their support for the candidate elected by the European Parliament conservatives – ex-Luxembourg premier Jean-Claude Juncker.
The conservatives are set to be the leading group in the next 751-seat parliament and Dr Merkel said she supported Mr Juncker, but Mr Orban disagreed as did Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.
The four-day European Parliament election that ended on Sunday served up a clear message of voters fed up with economic distress, belt-tightening austerity, immigration and, most of all, aloof and meddlesome bureaucrats in Brussels.
After decades of striving to tighten EU integration with “more Europe", many Europeans seem to believe that is no longer the answer.
Cameron, who has one eye on national elections next year, saw anti-EU outsider – the UK Independence Party (UKIP) – make history by topping polls in Britain.
The vote may have produced a “big dissident voice", said UKIP leader Nigel Farage, “(but)... I have just sat in a meeting where you would think nothing had happened at all, it was business as usual”.
In contrast to Mr Cameron and Mr Hollande, Dr Merkel came out of the Parliament elections relatively unscathed, delivering her usual message of the need for “growth and jobs... the best answer” to the EU’s current malaise.
Projections give the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) 213 seats out of 751, with the Socialists on 190 and the Liberals 64.
That will give the centre-right, centre-left and Liberals a solid working majority.
But the eurosceptics, xenophobes and even outright fascists about to sit in parliament and win EU funding, along with radical left groups, will gain a platform for their views as well as scope to slow down the assembly’s legislative process.
The anti-EU camp will have about 140 seats though analysts say it will be difficult for the disparate groups to operate in a coherent fashion.
The summer meanwhile will see all the EU’s top officials replaced, beginning with a new president of the Commission, the EU’s executive arm which proposes and enforces laws.
In previous years, this was the entire prerogative of the bloc’s national leaders, nominations discussed among themselves behind closed doors.
But the latest rules in the EU bible, set down in the Lisbon Treaty, state somewhat ambiguously that they must “take into account” the people’s voice via the election results.
On that basis, the five main parliament groups elected their own candidates for Commission president, sent them out on the campaign trail and warned they fully expected EU leaders to name one of them to the post.
As Parliament is the EU’s only directly elected body, they argue, this would be the best way to bolster the bloc’s democratic credibility.
On Tuesday, European Parliament party leaders agreed to back Mr Juncker as Commission president as his EPP topped the vote.
Should he fail to put together a 376-seat majority in parliament then the job could fall to Martin Schulz of the second-placed Socialists.
A refusal by the national leaders to accept the Parliament’s candidates could lead to an institutional crisis.
“Our point is that there’s no automatic connection between the outcome of the election and the nomination,” said Hungary’s Orban.
The process is expected to take weeks, perhaps months, with one senior EU official warning “there will be no white smoke” signalling a choice has been made at Tuesday’s dinner.