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All eyes on skeptics as massive EU vote enters final day

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Published : 2014-05-25 21:04
Updated : 2014-05-25 21:04

BRUSSELS (AFP) ― EU parliamentary voting got underway in Greece, Romania and Lithuania Sunday, the final day of a massive process expected to give euroskeptic parties a boost.

In all, 21 EU member states, including France, Germany and Italy head to the polls Sunday to end four days of voting which began in Britain and the Netherlands on Thursday.

If opinion polls prove correct, the euroskeptic parties could treble their presence to around 100 seats in the new 751-seat EU assembly.

In Denmark, France and Italy, anti-EU parties are poised to take first or second place, shaking up national politics and preparing to battle Brussels from the inside.

In Britain, the euroskeptic U.K. Independence Party led by Nigel Farage ― a party without a single seat in the national parliament ― surged Thursday in local council polls held in parallel with the EU vote, rocking the establishment.

Turnout too is likely to reflect growing popular exasperation with the EU, dropping even further from the record low of 43 percent in 2009.

“There is a legitimacy problem,” Carnegie Europe director Jan Techau told AFP.

“But a win for the fringe parties won’t derail or change the way the parliament works,” Techau said.

“It will change a country’s domestic political scene and possibly affect the way national leaders act within the EU.”

The polls suggest the mainstream parties, the Center-right conservatives and Center-left socialists, will hold about 70 percent of the seats in the next parliament.

Traditionally they have worked together much of the time and should be able to continue to do so, analysts said.

Faced by mounting hostility to the Brussels bureaucracy and the harsh austerity policies adopted to overcome the debt crisis, EU political leaders have worked hard to correct a so-called “democratic deficit.”

For the first time, the five main groups in parliament named candidates to be the next head of the powerful European Commission and sent them out on the campaign trail.

They also organized televised debates between the candidates, exposing them to the harsh light of public questioning.

Summing up the hopes of reconnecting with the bloc’s 500 million people, a giant banner hung at EU headquarters in Brussels read: “This time it’s different ― Your vote counts.”

Analysts have their doubts, however, on that point.

“The European Parliament’s bid to politicize and personalize the vote has not worked,” said Jean-Dominique Giuliani of the Robert Schuman Foundation.

Instead, the euroskeptics and more radical groups have picked up support on anti-immigrant and anti-EU issues made doubly sensitive when 26 million people are out of work, including more than half those under 25 in countries such as Greece and Spain.

“It’s clear that these elections cannot just go on like this because people simply do not consider the European parliament to have political weight,” Techau said.

“There will have to be substantial reforms.”

Anti-EU groups are likely to do well in France and Italy, along with Austria, Lithuania, Hungary and Finland.

In contrast in Eastern Europe, the Ukraine crisis and fears of a resurgent Russia appear to have bolstered the attraction of EU ties and the security they offer.

Czech Republic voters on Saturday backed three pro-EU parties, while in Latvia, a rightwing anti-EU party ― the National Alliance ― trailed in third.

A recent Pew Research Center poll showed 72 percent support for the EU in Poland, for instance.

Overall, the latest PollWatch survey forecast victory at the ballot-box to the center-right European People’s Party, on 217 seats in the EU parliament against 201 for the Socialists and Democrats.

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