By Robin Emmott and Gabriela Baczynska
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Pro-European parties kept a firm grip on the EU parliament on Monday as liberal and green parties matched a surge by eurosceptic parties, who won control of a quarter of seats in European elections for the first time.
The far-right and nationalists in Italy, Britain, France and Poland came out on top in their national votes on Sunday, shaking up politics at home but failing to dramatically alter the balance of pro-European power in EU assembly.
(Graphic: Results of elections to the European Parliament - https://tmsnrt.rs/2HvZs1M)
Facing a more hostile Russia, China's growing economic might and an unpredictable U.S. President Donald Trump, many Europeans appeared to heed a message that the EU needed to stick together to protect workers' rights, free speech and democracy.
"We are going to build a social Europe, a Europe that protects," Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, whose revival among Spanish voters offset a fall in centre-left support in Germany, told a news conference late on Sunday night.
Investor sentiment was bolstered by the smaller than expected gains by populist parties. However, the drop in support for the main centre-right and centre-left blocs could complicate policymaking and require broader cross-party agreements and discipline, market analysts said.
Provisional results published at 08:18 GMT on Monday showed the Socialists, Greens, liberals and conservatives with 507 of the 751 seats in the EU Parliament, which helps pass laws for more than 500 million Europeans.
The search for a majority, as well as securing the top EU jobs, will now dominate as pro-EU groups seek to shield the EU from anti-establishment forces, who want to break up the world's largest trading bloc but who are split over its future.
French President Emmanuel Macron's centrist Renaissance platform added to gains for liberals at the EU level while support for the Greens surged, giving four groups the pro-EU middle ground and holding on to two-thirds of seats.
Macron and Sanchez were to meet later on Monday, the first in a series of meetings between EU leaders before they gather for a summit on Tuesday evening in Brussels to discuss the outcome of the parliament vote.
BREXIT, FAR-RIGHT PROTEST
A stronger voice for the liberals and Greens could see the next EU executive seek a tougher line on regulating polluting industries, taxing multinational companies or demanding trading partners help contain climate change.
They could also press EU member states, notably in the east, not to damage civil rights.
Cries of "Europe is back" among voters waving blue and gold EU flags outside European Parliament in Brussels on Sunday night also showed the ebullient mood among Europeans delighted with a sharply higher turnout across the bloc.
Turnout in the world's second-biggest election rose to 51% from 43% in 2014, its highest in 20 years and the first reverse of falling participation since the first direct EU vote in 1979.
Disenchantment with the European project, which has struggled through economic and migration crises over the past five years, has made the bloc seem distant to voters and anger with the traditional parties was palpable across the bloc.
Riding a wave of anger at the British government's failure to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union, Nigel Farage's Brexit Party won a resounding victory.
The result showed Britain even more polarised over its Brexit divorce, nearly three years since a 2016 referendum in which it voted 52% to 48% to leave.
While Britain's departure from the bloc will require its EU lawmakers to give up their seats, Farage's party and its allies won 29 seats, the same number as Chancellor Angela Merkel's centre-right European People's Party in Germany.
In Italy, the far-right League became Italy's largest party, giving greater authority to its leader Matteo Salvini who is pushing for swingeing tax cuts in defiance of EU budget rules.
Poland's eurosceptic ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) also came out ahead. In France, Marine Le Pen's anti-immigration, anti-Brussels National Rally edged Macron's pro-European centrist movement. Far-right separatists also saw support surge in Belgium.
FIGHT FOR EU POSTS
Provisional results for the EU Parliament put the EPP on 182 seats, ahead of the S&D on 147, with the liberals on 109, up 41 seats, and Greens on 69, up 17. On the far-right, two groups in the parliament had well over a 100 seats, a 40% jump from 2014.
Three existing eurosceptic groups, including those of Le Pen and Salvini's League, will make up about 25% of the chamber, up from around 20 percent in the current parliament.
With four, rather than two, centrist alliances in the assembly, it is less clear who will be the next head of the Commission," Guntram Wolff, the director of think-tank Bruegel, told Reuters. "First the parliament needs a coalition agreement on substance and personalities," he said.
That agreement should include more humane immigration policies and tackling climate change, said Maria Nyman, secretary general of charity Caritas Europa.
Leaders for the four pro-EU centre parties were set to hold their first talks on Monday and there will be weeks and possibly months of hard bargaining over who will run EU institutions.
Parliament says one of its members should succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the executive European Commission but many national leaders, who will meet for dinner in Brussels on Tuesday, have said they will not be bound by that demand.
(Reporting by Alastair Macdonald, Gabriela Baczynska, Alissa de Carbonnel, Daphne Psaledakis, Foo Yun Chee, Robin Emmott and Francesco Guarascio, Jan Strupczewski; additional reporting by Elena Rodriguez in Madrid; Editing by Jon Boyle)