Europe's leaders urge EU reform after eurosceptic poll wins

A TV grab taken from French TV channel France 2 shows French President Francois Hollande addressing the nation, on May 26, 2014 during a TV broadcoast at the Elysee presidential Palace in Paris. -- PHOTO: AFP
A TV grab taken from French TV channel France 2 shows French President Francois Hollande addressing the nation, on May 26, 2014 during a TV broadcoast at the Elysee presidential Palace in Paris. -- PHOTO: AFP

BRUSSELS (AFP) - France's President Francois Hollande on Monday called for reining in Brussels' power after eurosceptic and far-right parties scored stunning success in EU polls, sending shock waves through the continent's political landscape.

"Earthquake" in Europe, read the headlines after European parliamentary elections ended Sunday, summing up a day of trauma for establishment parties and the accepted consensus that the European Union offers the best future for all.

Mr Hollande went on national television to call for the EU to reduce its role which he said had become for many citizens "remote and incomprehensible".

The embattled leader saw the far-right National Front (FN) come out on top in France's vote, pushing his Socialist Party to a humiliating third place.

"This cannot continue. Europe has to be simple, clear, to be effective where it is needed and to withdraw from where it is not necessary," Mr Hollande said in his address to the nation.

Across the Channel, British Prime Minister David Cameron faced a similar sentiment from voters with the anti-EU UK Independence Party's victory at the ballot box.

Ahead of an Informal European Council in Brussels on Tuesday, Mr Cameron spoke to several of his counterparts saying they should learn from the election results, a statement from his Downing Street office said.

"The PM has been making the point... that leaders should seize the opportunity of tomorrow's dinner to heed the views expressed at the ballot box that the EU needs to change and to show it cannot be business as usual," it said.

Mr Cameron spoke to Chancellor Angela Merkel who experienced a different result with her own conservative party winning the poll in Germany.

"It's quite remarkable and regrettable but now the point is to win those voters back," said Dr Merkel in reaction to the anti-EU trend elsewhere.

"A policy of competitiveness, growth and jobs is the best answer to the disappointment of those who voted in a way that we don't like," she said.

The pro-European Union parties must offer disillusioned voters the real prospect of jobs and growth, said French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who ruled out stepping down after just weeks in office.

"I am convinced that Europe can be re-oriented to increase support for growth and employment, which it hasn't done in years," Mr Valls said.

"Certainly there is a message across Europe of disillusionment with Europe and the EU has got to hear that loud and clear," said Foreign Secretary William Hague in Britain, where Nigel Farage's UKIP took 27 per cent of the vote with Labour second and the Conservatives third.

"This is just about the most extraordinary result in British politics for over 100 years," Mr Farage said, promising more to come. "The penny has really dropped."

European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso put the best gloss on the outcome, stressing that combined, the pro-EU camp of the centre-right, centre-left and Liberals would still have "a very solid and workable majority in the European Parliament".

"Standing together as Europeans is indispensable for Europe to shape a global order where we can defend our values and interests," Mr Barroso said, also stressing employment and economic growth as the best answer to current concerns.

Analysts said anti-euro and anti-immigration parties had tapped into growing voter frustration after years in the economic doldrums pushed unemployment in Europe to record highs, while governments cut spending to balance the public finances at Brussels' behest.

Parliament's latest projections give the centre-right European People's Party 213 seats in the new 751-seat assembly, with the Socialists on 190 and the ALDE Liberals on 64, followed by the Greens on 53.

The anti-EU vote should produce about 140 seats in all, giving them enough of a voice in the new assembly to live up to promises to weaken the EU from the inside.

Analysts noted, however, that these parties must get at least 25 MEPs from a minimum of seven of the EU's 28 member states to form an official Parliamentary group, and some might struggle to meet that requirement.

The FN will have 24 of the 74 seats for France. But UKIP, for example, refuses any ties with the FN because it says it is anti-Semitic, meaning the French group will have to look to smaller, extreme parties such as Holland's PVV.

The fact that the EPP and Socialists remain the two biggest groups means there is no reason to believe the anti-EU vote is fatal, analysts say.

"By and large, the EU elections delivered roughly the expected protest vote," said Mr Holger Schmieding of Berenberg Bank.

"Austerity and reforms are painful, immigration is contentious even at the best of times. Voters used the EU elections to let off steam. No surprise."

Sunday's vote "was probably the high water mark of anti-EU sentiment. As economic growth gains some momentum... anti-EU sentiment will likely subside somewhat in coming years," Mr Schmieding said in a note entitled: "Not quite an Earthquake."

Some analysts - and many officials - also highlighted that voter turnout, having fallen steadily since 1979, edged up very slightly to 43.1 per cent from 43 per cent in 2009, suggesting that voter disinterest in the EU might have peaked.

Financial markets welcomed the outcome. In Italy, stocks jumped more than 3.0 per cent in early trade after Prime Minister Matteo Renzi won by a landslide, seeing off the eurosceptic Five Star Movement of Beppe Grillo with 40.8 per cent of the vote to 21.2 per cent.

The Paris stock exchange was up 0.33 per cent and Frankfurt put on 0.94 per cent. London was closed for a public holiday.

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