BRUSSELS (AFP) ― Britain and the Netherlands kicked off perilous four-day European elections Thursday likely to see major gains for anti-EU parties bent on destroying the European Union from the inside.
The lengthy four-day vote winding up on Sunday calls on 382 million voters to cast ballots in the 28 EU member states for the 751-seat European Parliament, which has a five-year mandate.
As the EU has expanded eastwards, with Croatia its newest member in 2013, parliament has seen its influence and powers slowly but steadily strengthened ― as has the European Commission in Brussels.
Paradoxically, however, apathy and anti-EU sentiment also have been on the rise, making the 2014 election one of the most critical in the bloc’s 60-year history.
In the 2009 European elections, voter participation fell to 43 percent.
Abstention likely will hit a new record this year as EU citizens blame Brussels and the euro for job cuts and hugely unpopular austerity policies adopted to tame the 2010-2012 debt crisis.
|View of flags of European countries above the entrance of the European Council in Brussels (AFP-Yonhap)|
With 26 million people out of work across the EU, including over half of those under 25 in countries such as Greece and Spain, euroskeptics and far-right parties have picked up massive support on anti-immigrant and anti-EU planks.
The latest polls show euroskeptics and others who have struck a chord with disgruntled voters picking up almost 100 seats in the new parliament, or three times more than in the current assembly.
Such parties may come in first or second place in Britain, France, Italy and the Netherlands.
Dutch voters were be the first to cast their ballots Thursday followed by Britons. Italians will close the four-day voting bonanza when polling stations there shut at 11 p.m.
First estimates are expected Sunday at 8 p.m. GMT and first results shortly after the close of voting in Italy.
A survey by PollWatch showed conservatives holding a narrow lead over their Socialist rivals in the next parliament, with the European People’s Party on 217 seats against 201 for the Socialists and Democrats.
While that would leave the mainstream groups still the two biggest parties, the EPP would be down from 35.8 percent to 28.9 percent of total seats, and S&D up marginally from 25.6 percent to 26.8 percent.
In third place, the centrist Liberals would fare especially badly, falling to 59 seats.
The main winners appear to be the euroskeptics and others further to the right and left who have picked up support from voters on hot button issues such as immigration.
“Probably the biggest risk for the EU, markets and economic policies, will be indirect through the impact increasing populism has on domestic politics and, in turn, the position of governments towards Brussels,” said ING bank analyst Carsten Brzeski.
France for example highlights the trend. Out of 74 seats, the EPP would get 20 and the S&D 14 but 23 seats would go mostly to the far-right National Front and other small groups.
In Italy, out of 73 seats it is a similar picture ― 20 and 27 for the EPP and S&D, with 19 for various euroskeptic and right parties, the majority for populist comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement.
The anti-EU trend is highly fragmented, however, ranging from Nigel Farage’s U.K. Independence Party ― the largest member of the right-wing euroskeptic Europe of Freedom and Democracy group in parliament ― to France’s FN or Dutch PVV, while including outright neo-Nazis such as Greece’s Golden Dawn or Hungarian nationalists Jobbik.
The radical left parties as a whole, currently the sixth-biggest group in the parliament, are expected to climb to fourth place with 53 seats.
That would put them ahead of the Greens, with 44, followed by an existing euroskeptic group made up of British and Polish conservatives, the European Conservatives and Reformists, with 44.
“The new parliament would be more polarized,” said analysts VoteWatch.
But “a lot of tough bargaining between parties and their prospective groups will follow the European elections. We may not know the final composition of the groups until the last week of June.”