Voters in Brexit-bound Britain and the Netherlands cast ballots yesterday at the start of 28-nation EU elections in which Eurosceptic, anti-immigration forces have vowed a political earthquake to shake up the Brussels establishment.
With British Prime Minister Theresa May’s resignation appearing imminent after she postponed a forlorn attempt to push her divorce deal through parliament, Britain joined the Netherlands in kicking off four days of voting across the continent.
The populist momentum took an early hit, according to a Dutch exit poll released late yesterday.
Dutch leftists scored a surprise victory to win the most seats in the EU elections, beating the party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte and an upstart populist group, the exit poll said.
The Labour party of European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans was projected to win five seats out of the 26 allocated for the Netherlands, the Ipsos poll for public broadcaster NOS said.
Rutte’s Liberals were set to win four seats and the right-wing Forum for Democracy of populist leader Thierry Baudet was projected to win three seats.
In Britain, the elections were a surreal spectacle in a country that was supposed to have already left the European Union after voting for Brexit in a referendum almost three years ago.
The Brexit crisis mirrored deep divisions across the continent, where rising anti-establishment forces are bidding to make significant gains in the elections.
More than 400mn European voters are eligible to elect 751 European Parliament members, with the first results expected late on Sunday once voting in the 28 member states is over.
Having opted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum, Britain was originally meant to depart on March 29 and not take part in the election.
However, MPs have rejected May’s withdrawal agreement and the country now finds itself electing lawmakers to an institution it plans to leave.
The issue looked set to dominate how Britons vote.
Voting in the Scottish city of Glasgow, Rex Taylor, a 79-year-old retired professor, said: “We’ve been let down by both of the main parties.”
The newly-created Brexit Party, formed only this year by Eurosceptic figurehead Nigel Farage, is leading the latest opinion polls with 37% of the vote.
However, the pro-EU Liberal Democrats also look set to capitalise on the mixed Brexit messages of the main parties.
“The Liberal Democrats have succeeded in ... establishing themselves as the principal Remain party,” Matt Cole, from the University of Birmingham, told AFP.
Some EU citizens reported being turned away at British polling booths, with many complaining that they were the victims of clerical errors in the last-minute scramble to organise the vote.
“I’ve been turned away from the polling station saying I’m not eligible to vote despite the fact I’ve got a polling card and have registered too. My local council ... failed to send out the declaration,” EU citizen Peter Baier wrote on Twitter.
The Electoral Commission issued a statement saying that the “very short notice” given by the government to prepare for the elections “impacted on the time available for awareness” among voters (see accompanying report).
Around the continent, national leaders are scrambling to mobilise supporters to resist the populist surge, with opinion polls showing nationalist parties leading in France, Italy and Hungary, among others.
Pro-European leaders fear a good showing for the Eurosceptics will disrupt Brussels decision-making, threatening reform efforts at closer integration.
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.
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% support.
“Everything has changed,” Le Pen told AFP. “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.
The latest Eurobarometer survey commissioned by the European Parliament found 61% of respondents calling their country’s EU membership a good thing – the highest level since the early 1990s.
Polling stations will open today in the Czech Republic and Ireland.
Tomorrow polling opens in Latvia, Malta and Slovakia.
Most countries will be voting on Sunday, with the poll results expected overnight into Monday.
Former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker is stepping down after five years as president of the European Commission.
The hunt will also be on for someone to replace former Polish premier Donald Tusk as head of the EU council.
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