BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Surfing an international wave of climate activism to their strongest showing yet in European Union elections, Europe's Greens on Sunday readied to press their demands on climate and trade in Brussels.
An ebb in support for mainstream parties furthermore raised hopes among Europe's ecology parties that they could even use their still relatively small presence in the EU assembly to act as kingmakers in an increasingly fragmented EU legislature.
Much of the gain in support came from the northern European countries that were once the continent's industrial heartlands, where young people have taken to the streets to demand a break from a legacy of dependence on fossil fuels.
Germany's Greens notably leapt into second place behind Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU conservatives, with voters under the age of 30 accounting for a third of their vote, according to exit polls.
"This election was above all about the issue of climate and climate protection," acknowledged Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, leader of the German Christian Democrats (CDU), currently the biggest European party in the EU chamber.
Greens also doubled their share of the vote to take two seats in Finland and Denmark, won their first two seats in Ireland in two decades, grabbed third place in France and were set for strong showings in Belgium, the Netherlands and Britain - the latter partly as a result of being clearly anti-Brexit.
Early indications showed that green parties could add nearly 20 extra seats in parliament, where there will be now weeks of bargaining among all the parties to form a stable majority. Leaders of the pan-European Green alliance projected to hold some 10 percent of seats said their support will not come cheap.
Not only will they seek written commitments on climate action - which could spell tighter regulation for industry - but will push demands on tax policy and in trade negotiation with Australia and the United States.
"The citizens are giving a bigger lever than we ever had in this parliament and we are going to use that lever," Philippe Lamberts, who leads the Greens family of more than 30 national parties in Parliament, told Reuters.
The stakes are high in upcoming coalition talks amid fears by some that unprecedented gains by populist nationalists will seek to hijack or block a pro-European agenda.
Much of the ecologists' support came from younger voters, inspired by 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and school strikes in dozens of countries.
With the centre-right and centre-left parties losing their joint majority in informal coordination on voting over the last five years, they have been courting support from other parties.
"We know they want to court us," Lamberts said. "It won't be that you get the Green votes for forever and that we will forget about the promises."
(Reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel in Brussels; Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke in Berlin, Francesco Guarascio and Bart Biesemans in Brussels; Editing by Mark John)