After two months of campaigning that opinion polls suggest has
largely failed to inspire the electorate, up to 380 million
Europeans are entitled to vote in 28 countries, choosing 751
deputies to represent them in the European Parliament.
Despite efforts to mobilize voters by telling them they will for the
first time indirectly be choosing the next president of the European
Commission, pollsters forecast a low turnout, possibly below the
2009 nadir of 43 percent.
With Europe struggling to recover from economic crisis, including
record high unemployment and negligible growth, the election is
expected to produce a surge in support for Eurosceptics on both the
far-right and hard left.
In Britain, the UK Independence Party, which wants to withdraw from
the EU and impose tighter immigration controls, is expected to win
the vote, pushing the governing Conservatives into third place
behind Labour, latest opinion polls show.
That could raise pressure on Conservative Prime Minister David
Cameron, who has promised an in/out referendum on EU membership in
2017 if he is re-elected next year, to take a tougher line on
reducing the EU's powers.
A similar story is expected in the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders'
anti-Islam and anti-EU Freedom Party - which plans to forge an
alliance with France's far-right National Front - is expected to win
with up to 23 percent of the vote.
The Dutch will release exit polls on Thursday evening, but Britain
will only announce its results late on Sunday, once voting has
finished in all EU member states.
Consolidated results, including the allotment of seats in the
parliament, will be announced at around 2100 GMT on Sunday.
The bulk of countries vote on May 25, when the trend towards the
political extremes may become clearer, particularly in France,
Denmark, Hungary, Italy, Greece and Austria.
On the last day of campaigning, Jean-Claude Juncker, the top
candidate for Europe's centre-right political group, urged voters to
steer away from the extremes.
"Do not give your votes to extremist xenophobes or fascists," the
veteran former Luxembourg prime minister said at a rally in
Brussels. "If you want Europe to function and to serve its citizens,
we should vote for people who will work hard in the next European
Juncker and his Socialist opponent, Martin Schulz, the German
president of the outgoing European Parliament, have held an
unprecedented series of television debates in an effort to
personalize the election and enthuse the electorate.
LOW TURNOUT FAVOURS EXTREMES
Since the first direct elections to the European Parliament were
held in 1979, turnout has fallen every time. It is expected to drop
again to around 40 percent this year, pollsters say, a factor that
will tend to boost the vote for radical parties.
That said, Europe's mainstream political groups - the centre-right
European People's Party, the centre-left Socialists & Democrats, the
liberal ALDE alliance and the Greens - are together expected to
secure 70 percent of the vote, leaving them as a driving force in
Europe as long as they work together.
In France, former President Nicolas Sarkozy, mostly absent from
daily politics since being defeated in 2012, made a last-minute
intervention in the campaign as his conservative UMP party risks
being beaten into second place by Marine Le Pen's far-right National
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In an implicit swipe at his unpopular Socialist successor, Francois
Hollande, Sarkozy called for a radical shake-up in the way the EU is
run, with a Franco-German economic zone taking leadership of the
euro zone at the centre of Europe.
He also called for the suspension of the EU's open-border Schengen
zone of passport-free travel, which had failed to prevent an influx
of migrants, and the negotiation of a stricter pact open only to
countries with tougher immigration controls.
"We must stop
believing in the myth of the equality of rights and responsibilities
of all member states," Sarkozy wrote in an article in the French
weekly magazine Le Point and the German daily Die Welt.
While the European Parliament has in the past been derided as a
toothless talking shop, it has gained relevance since the passage of
the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 and now enjoys 'co-decision' powers with
member states over most legislation.
For the first time, parliament has also backed the idea that each
group should have a "Spitzenkandidat" - German for "top candidate" -
who is in line to become president of the European Commission should
their group win the elections.
While supporters of the process are adamant it should be used to
determine who succeeds Jose Manuel Barroso as Commission president,
one of Brussels' most influential jobs, EU leaders are ultimately
responsible for putting forward a name.
According to the Lisbon Treaty, they must "take into account" the
election results in making the nomination, and that person must then
be approved by a majority in parliament.
If EU leaders and parliament cannot agree on the candidate, there is
the risk of an institutional impasse in Brussels, which could have
long-term repercussions on confidence in the EU among already
disillusioned voters and financial markets.
Parliamentary leaders will meet on the morning of May 27 to assess
the outcome of the elections, and EU heads of state and government
will do the same over dinner the same day. But there is not expected
to be any clarity on the nominee for Commission president until
later in June, EU officials say.
While the main Eurosceptic assault in many countries comes from the
far right, the main challenge to new Italian Prime Minister Matteo
Renzi's centre-left Democratic Party comes from the
anti-establishment 5-Star Movement of former comic Beppe Grillo.
The last surveys released before a blackout on publishing opinion
polls gave the Democrats a comfortable lead, but private polls
leaked since then suggest it may be a tighter race.
(Additional reporting by John O'Donnell and Julia Fioretti; Writing
by Luke Baker and Paul Taylor; Editing by Will Waterman)
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