Europe goes to the polls

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Voters in most EU countries went to the polls on Sunday on the final day of a European election that is set to reveal a surge in support for populist groups which will have reverberations beyond Brussels and could shake up national governments.

The biggest exercise in democracy outside India, with up to 350m eligible to vote across Europe, will end on Sunday night after all ballot stations across the 28 EU countries will have closed. Voters in the Netherlands, Britain, Czech Republic, Ireland, Cyprus, Malta and Slovakia have already cast their ballot.

Mainstream parties are expected to retain control of the chamber. Europe’s Christian Democratic centre-right parties are forecast to emerge as the largest group, followed closely by the moderate left and liberal, according to the latest polls released ahead of the four-day election effort.

The European People’s party, a grouping of centre-right parties, is set to win 218 seats with the Socialists trailing behind with 201 seats. Liberals and Greens are set to win 70 and 42 seats, respectively, giving pro-EU groups a total 561 seats, down from 610 in 2009.

Doubts over whether there would be a surge in populist parties were raised on Thursday after Geert Wilders expressed disappointment about his Freedom party’s prospects in the European poll.

However, the rise of anti-EU sentiment and expectations of a record low turnout are likely to put the spotlight on the increasing discontent Europeans have for the EU project in the aftermath of a recession that caused record unemployment.

Eurosceptic and populist groups, including Britain’s Ukip, France’s National Front, Danish People’s party and the Jobbik party in Hungary are expected to increase their vote from the 2009 total. Italy’s Five Star Movement, formed by comedian Beppe Grillo, and Greece’s Syriza on the left are also expected to do well.

Ukip recorded a breakthrough in Britain’s local elections on Thursday and many expect it to emerge as the largest British party in the European elections when the results are announced on Sunday.

“Voters are fed up with mainstream party politicians who all sound the same and can deliver very little,” said Tim Newark, author of Protest Vote.

“In the UK, all the main parties are pro-EU, even the Tories, so they can do very little to address the huge concerns about mass immigration from the EU. Only Ukip is offering to take control of UK borders again.”

The gains of the populists should be sufficient for Marine Le Pen, FN leader, and Mr Wilders to form an anti-EU group with other nationalist parties. That would give them extra funds and speaking rights to take forward their mission to destroy the “Brussels monster”.

However, the rise of the fringe groups is likely to have an impact on national politics, particularly in the UK and France, where Nigel Farage’s Ukip and the FN are expected to emerge as the largest parties.

Ukip is forecast to be the big winner in the UK, seizing 30 per cent of the popular vote and securing 24 seats in the European Parliament, 11 more than in 2009.

Labour is expected to increase its number of MEPs from 13 to 22 seats, while the Conservatives are poised to lose nine MEPs, giving them only 16 seats. The Liberal Democrats are preparing for a near-complete wipeout as they are expected to win only two seats, down from 11.

In France, Ms Le Pen’s far-right party with 23 seats is expected to come ahead of the centre-right UMP and the ruling Socialists, which are forecast to win 20 and 14 seats, respectively.

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