It has been a wild month of elections around the world. Historic polling, with dramatic geopolitical implications, took place from India, the world’s largest democracy, to Colombia, where controversy over a still tenuous peace process grips the political elite. Then there was Ukraine, where national elections last Sunday capped months of political chaos, Russian territorial incursion, and a disturbing slide into armed civil conflict.

Amidst it all, elections to the European Parliament, the legislative body of the supra-national European Union government, might have seemed like an obscure exercise in bureaucratic turnover. Indeed, to many commentators and everyday Europeans, the elections seemed to be dwindling in importance: voter turnout for these contests has steadily diminished since the first election in 1979. In the last election, in 2009, only 43 percent of Europe participated, with voting among young adults down to 29 percent.

Yet far from being ignored, the results of last week’s elections have sent shock and panic through mainstream pro-EU political parties across Europe.

It has been a wild month of elections around the world. Historic polling, with dramatic geopolitical implications, took place from India, the world’s largest democracy, to Colombia, where controversy over a still tenuous peace process grips the political elite. Then there was Ukraine, where national elections last Sunday capped months of political chaos, Russian territorial incursion, and a disturbing slide into armed civil conflict.

Amidst it all, elections to the European Parliament, the legislative body of the supra-national European Union government, might have seemed like an obscure exercise in bureaucratic turnover. Indeed, to many commentators and everyday Europeans, the elections seemed to be dwindling in importance: voter turnout for these contests has steadily diminished since the first election in 1979. In the last election, in 2009, only 43 percent of Europe participated, with voting among young adults down to 29 percent.

Yet far from being ignored, the results of last week’s elections have sent shock and panic through mainstream pro-EU political parties across Europe, and have been held up in the major international press as a “political earthquake.” This is due to the unprecedented rise of previously “fringe” parties and movements broadly self-identified as “euro-skeptics.” These parties run the ideological spectrum from far left to far right, and include anti-semites, neo-fascists, and pro-Russia activists - but what unites them is their apparent ability to tap into a deep and worrying dissatisfaction with the current state of European affairs.

While it was clear to most observers that anti-EU parties would make some gains, the real surprise is just how big those gains were - and the equally precipitous drop in support for the traditional centrist parties that have defined European politics for decades.

Europe’s extremist populist parties, which have largely rallied around opposition to immigration and further European integration, have clearly shaken Europe’s political leaders, on both right and left. France’s Socialist president Francois Hollande called an emergency meeting of his cabinet to discuss the implications. Germany’s Angela Merkel called the results “remarkable and regrettable.”

To be clear, the far right and far left parties did not win enough seats to challenge the ruling majority of the European Parliament. They now, all together, represent about 25 percent of the body, while the largest center-right and center-left blocs still hold a comfortable majority. The center-right European People’s Party - conservative but still supportive of the European project - was the largest single bloc, with nearly 30 percent of the vote.

It is at the national level that the implications of the surge of Euroskepticism will likely play out most noticeably. In Britain, the far right UK Independence Party (UKIP), led by Nigel Farage, took first place overall, beating out the Conservatives, the Labour party, and the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems, the most pro-EU of the major parties, won just 7 percent of the vote and will lose nearly all of its 12 spots in the EU Parliament.

In France, too, the populist far right took home first place, with the National Front winning 25 percent of the vote, while the ruling Socialists won just 14 percent. With French turnout 10 percent higher than in 2009, the Front, led by Marine Le Pen, could now take 25 EU Parliament seats - compared with its current three.

Le Pen underscored one of the driving forces of this upsurge in her victory speech, arguing that the French “no longer want to be led by those outside our borders, by EU commissioners and technocrats who are unelected. They want to be protected from globalization and take back the reins of their destiny.” This resurgent nationalism, social conservatism, and suspicion of the EU and the US help explain why many of these parties have made common cause with Putin’s Russia - indeed, Hungary’s extreme nationalist Jobbik party is under investigation for receiving Russian funding.

In Spain and Greece, two countries where the Eurozone crisis hit the hardest and where austerity measures were particularly unpopular, the traditional centrist parties also turned in an historically weak showing. The election marked the first time that the two main Spanish parties failed to combine for 50 percent of the vote. It also marked the first time that the neo-fascist Greek party Golden Dawn will enter the EU Parliament, with 9 percent of the vote. The Greek far-left party Syriza won the election outright with 26 percent, and its leader Alexis Tsipras has called for early national elections.

However, the anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner, and anti-EU mood, while real, shouldn’t be overstated. To many analysts, such extreme parties have merely been skillful in channeling more fundamentally inchoate concerns over economic performance and disillusionment with politics in general. And the wave of populism was not universal: In Italy, the ruling center-left party of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi scored a resounding victory, with the biggest win for a single party since 1958. And in Germany, Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Union won easily.

In Central and Eastern Europe, too, mainstream and centrist parties carried the day. In Bulgaria, the center right GERB party won with over 30 percent of the vote, while the anti-corruption newcomer Bulgaria Without Censorship (BWC) party will enter the European Parliament for the first time with two seats after a strong showing of 11 percent. Importantly, no Bulgarian far right or other extremist parties won enough support to send a representative to the Parliament.

In Hungary, the ruling conservative Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban won a resounding 51.5 percent of the vote. Far right Jobbik won three seats to Fidesz’s 12, but its vote share fell compared to the last election. In Poland, the center right was also clearly in ascendance, with Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s ruling party winning just under 33 percent and the conservative Law and Justice Party winning second with 31 percent.

In many ways, European politicians have received a wakeup call that broad swathes of their citizens are frustrated and skeptical about the trajectory of the continent’s political institutions. The rise in both far right and far left sentiments indicates that the problem is a deeper dissatisfaction that goes beyond specific ideology to a question of the legitimacy of the Union itself. How mainstream national parties react to this challenge will go a long way in answering whether anti-EU politics continues to be a rising trend, or a blip on the radar.