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After Euroskeptic rise, EU leaders step into fray

By Raf Casert

Associated Press

Published: Monday, May 26 2014 10:37 a.m. MDT

European Parliament President Martin Schulz and candidate for the Socialist party to become European Commission President, looks down during an interview, at the European Parliament in Brussels, Sunday, May 25, 2014. Exit polls showed the far right and Eurosceptics making sweeping gains in European Parliament elections Sunday, signaling a major political shift toward parties that want to slash the European Union's powers or abolish it altogether.

Yves Logghe, Associated Press

BRUSSELS — Euroskeptics celebrated across the continent on Monday, from Britain to France and beyond, over their unmatched success in the European Parliament election. Now they are keen to put up internal borders again, keep foreigners out of their labor markets, abolish the common euro currency and let their nations go it alone in a globalized world.

The 28 European Union leaders meeting in Tuesday's postelection summit have a different task: making sure the surge of anti-EU and anti-establishment parties that claimed almost 30 percent of the EU's 751-seat legislature doesn't dislodge the 64-year project of closer cooperation between European nations.

They will also need to look for a way to reconnect with an ever more disenchanted European electorate that stayed away from the polls in massive numbers — and cast plenty of protest votes when they did show up.

Trust in political leadership "is going down dramatically," EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso acknowledged Monday in Sintra, Portugal.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, faced with the rise of the Euroskeptic UK Independence Party at home, struck a similar note, saying nothing will be business-as-usual any more.

"People are deeply disillusioned with the European Union," Cameron said Monday after Nigel Farage's UKIP came out on top in Britain and was slated to win 24 EU seats, compared to 19 for Cameron's Conservatives.

The British leader who has been calling on the EU to drastically reform its ways and institutions to give member nations more space to run their own affairs will be a key figure at Tuesday's summit.

Voters "want change and as far as I am concerned that message is completely received and understood," Cameron said.

Yet he will find it tough going against many continental EU leaders and the EU leadership itself. And as it is so often, France came to a totally different conclusion when assessing Europe.

"I am convinced that Europe can be reoriented" to combat the rise of populism, said French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, arguing that common EU policies are something to strive for.

"The policy is noble," he said. "Europe remains a magnificent project."

One of the most significant victors Sunday was France's far-right National Front party led by Marine Le Pen, the outright winner in France with 26 percent of the vote and 22 of France's 74 seats. One analyst said a politically divided France was bad for all of Europe.

"The most worrisome result is the one with respect to France and the major win of Marine Le Pen," said Janis A. Emmanouilidis, senior policy analyst at European Policy Center think tank. "The question is, what effect does that have on an already weak president, a weak government and what kind of negative repercussions that has on the EU policymaking? Because having a weak France is no good news."

Instead of giving power back to member states, the outgoing EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said there were still enough political parties in the legislature that "share a fundamental consensus for Europe that should now be reinforced."

About two-third of the seats will remain in the hands of parties that have led the European Union to what it has become to date.

With such opposing views coming into Tuesday's summit, no quick results are expected on who should be picked as Barroso's successor. The EU Commission has the right to propose legislation, making its presidency a key job.

Jean-Claude Juncker, former prime minister of Luxembourg and ex-leader of the group of nations using the euro currency, laid claim to the position because he was chief candidate for the party that got more votes than any other, the EPP center-right party.

"I am not on my knees. I won the elections," Juncker said Monday.

Yet even if his EPP will still be the biggest bloc in the legislature, it did lose 60 seats to fall to 214 overall. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday that, although Juncker remains her candidate, "to be honest, I can't decide that alone."

To select the EU commission president, for which there are a total of five declared candidates, leaders are supposed to take the election results into account, but they are not binding. Their choice also must be ratified by the European Parliament itself.

According to official returns Monday, the S&D Socialists of outgoing parliament president Martin Schulz came in second with 189 seats, and the slumping ALDE free-market liberals came third with 66 seats.

Euroskeptic, anti-establishment and pro-reform parties don't figure in the top results since they are a disparate group, including moderates and representatives from the fringes of the right and left, some with an avid dislike for each another. They are too divided to agree upon one candidate for EU Commission president, and even if they did, their pick would have a slim-to-none chance of being chosen by national leaders.

Nevertheless, their rise in itself "is a bad day for the European Union," Schulz said.

Geir Moulson contributed from Berlin, Angela Charlton from Paris and Barry Hatton from Sintra, Portugal. Follow Raf Casert on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/rcasert

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