LONDON: Voters in Brexit-bound Britain cast ballots Thursday at the start of a 28-nation European election in which eurosceptic, anti-immigration forces have vowed to create a political earthquake that will shake the Brussels establishment.
As Britain’s prime minister faced losing her job over her failed efforts to quit the bloc, the country joined the Netherlands on the first-day of a four-day election across the European Union.
It was an extraordinary spectacle for a country that voted almost three years ago to leave the bloc and whose prime minister, Theresa May, had vowed to honour the result in time to avoid the election.
The Brexit crisis mirrored deep divisions across the continent.
Rising anti-establishment forces across the continent are bidding to make significant gains, threatening closer EU integration.
More than 400 million European voters are eligible to elect 751 Members of the European Parliament, with the first results announced late Sunday once voting in all 28 member states has been completed.
Having voted to leave the EU in a seismic referendum in 2016, Britain was originally meant to depart on March 29 and therefore not take part in these elections.
But its MPs have not been able to agree on a divorce deal and the country now finds itself in the absurd situation of electing lawmakers to an institution it is planning to leave.
The issue looked set to dominate how Britons vote.
“Once you’ve made a decision to leave I felt that we should have executed it,” said Neil Rodford, 49, as he cast his ballot in southwest London.
The Brexit Party, formed only this year by eurosceptic figurehead Nigel Farage, is leading the latest opinion polls with 37 per cent of the vote.
Amid widespread frustration at Britain’s stalled departure from the EU and political gridlock, the ruling Conservatives are in fifth place with just seven per cent while the Labour opposition also lag behind on 13.
“We are attempting a peaceful political revolution in this country,” Farage told the party’s final rally this week.
“The establishment: they’re not frightened — they’re absolutely terrified!” he said of his new party’s rise.
Opposed to closer EU integration
In the Netherlands, flamboyant populist Thierry Baudet, a classics-quoting climate sceptic, is on course to beat Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Liberals.
Once best known for naked Instagram selfies and controversial comments about women, Baudet, 36, stunned Europe in March when his Forum for Democracy became the biggest party in the Dutch senate.
Around the continent, national leaders are scrambling to mobilise their supporters to resist the populist surge, with opinion polls showing nationalist parties in the lead in France, Italy and Hungary, among others.
European governments fear a good showing for the Eurosceptics will disrupt Brussels decision-making, threatening mainstream reform efforts at closer integration.
These are the ninth European parliament elections since they began in 1979 and voter turnout has dropped each time, hitting 43 per cent in 2014.
‘Everything has changed’
Matteo Salvini of Italy’s anti-immigrant League and Marine Le Pen of France’s far-right National Rally (RN) want their Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group to become the third largest in Brussels. The League has topped opinion polls in Italy.
Meanwhile Le Pen wants to strike a blow to Emmanuel Macron’s faltering French presidency by overtaking his centrist, pro-European party Republic on the Move.
Polls give her RN party a slight edge, with around 23 per cent support.
“Everything has changed,” Le Pen told AFP.
“In the space of a few months, a whole range of political forces have risen up in spectacular fashion.”
However, the strong showing by Eurosceptics is not expected to sweep the whole bloc, with voters from Spain to Ireland and the former Soviet Baltic states indicating solid backing for the EU.
In Germany, surveys show Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party — a heavyweight in the EU-wide centre-right EPP group — in first place, with the Greens second.
Centre-right set to win
The latest Eurobarometer survey commissioned by the European Parliament found 61 per cent of respondents calling their country’s EU membership a good thing — the highest level since the early 1990s.
The polls will open on Friday in the Czech Republic and Ireland, and on Saturday in Latvia, Malta and Slovakia.
But most countries will be voting on Sunday, with the results expected overnight into Monday.
Nine different projections this month predict that the EPP will come out with the most seats ahead of the main centre-left PES bloc and then the ALDE liberals.
Former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker is stepping down after five years as president of the European Commission.
EPP leader Manfred Weber is their candidate to replace him, while the PES is putting up former Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans.
The hunt will also be on for someone to replace former Polish premier Donald Tusk as head of the EU leaders’ council.