, LONDON, June 4 – Polling stations opened in the Netherlands and Britain, the first countries to vote in EU parliament elections, with the whole continent braced for a massive abstention and a protest vote by those who take part which could boost extremist parties.
"About 10,000 polling stations in the country opened this morning," electoral council official Hanneke Schipper told AFP.
"We have received three reports of small problems, but those have been sorted out and everything is running smoothly," she said.
Polls for both the EU and local authority elections opened in Britain at 7:00am (0600 GMT) and will close at 10:00pm.
Governments across the 27-nation are treating the election of the 736 member parliament as a test of their own popularity more than that of the unloved European assembly.
Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown in particular was expected to announce at least a cabinet shuffle after voting on Thursday dominated by a scandal over expenses by members of the country’s national parliament.
His ruling Labour Party could be beaten by a group seeking Britain’s withdrawal from the EU which would increase pressure for a national election.
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel is also treating the vote as a rehearsal for a national election in September. In Bulgaria it is a litmus test for a legislative election in July.
But across Europe, movements ranging from the Pirate Party in Sweden which wants free Internet downloads to far-right anti-European and anti-immigrant parties held high hopes of claiming a seat in the parliament.
Each country holds its own election for the parliament, but full results will only be known late Sunday after France, Germany, Italy, Spain and 15 other countries have held their votes.
EU leaders fear the turnout rate, which has fallen with each election since the first in 1979, could slump to a new record low.
Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy made a joint appeal for the 375 million eligible voters to turn out, but polls have indicated the abstention rate will be higher than the record 45 percent in 2004.
Seeking to counter the widespread mistrust of the EU, the two said a "strong Europe does not necessarily mean more powers for the European Union, even more European legislation or even more financial means."
But surveys in France indicate that only a third of the electorate will take part in the country’s EU vote next Sunday. In Britain, Poland and Romania, fewer than one in three people plan to vote, according to surveys.
"Extremist parties", already profiting from the recession in Europe, are lined up to benefit from the anger against national governments, according to outgoing European parliament president Hans-Gert Poettering.
Pottering told Spanish newspaper El Mundo he hoped not to see politicians like France’s National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who "do not condemn the Holocaust", in the parliament.
In Britain, the UK Independence Party could overtake Brown’s Labour and take second place in the EU election, even though it wants to take Britain out of Europe.
In the Netherlands, which was expected to be the first to report results on Thursday night, Geert Wilders’ anti-Islamic Party for Freedom (PVV) hoped to get at least four of the 25 Dutch seats in the EU parliament.
Wilders declared in a recent newspaper interview that he wants "to bring it (the parliament) down from inside".
The parliament has earned a reputation as a talking shop and an easy all-expenses paid lifestyle for its deputies.
The parliament is the only directly-elected EU institution and has an important role passing pan-European legislation drafted by the EU Commission. It also passes the commission’s annual budget, which will be about 140 billion euros in 2010, and could get extra powers if the EU’s reforming Lisbon Treaty is ratified by all members.
Centre-right parties are expected to retain control of the parliament no matter how well the protest parties perform.
Some new fringe parties have a serious chance of getting a foothold in the EU assembly.
Sweden’s Pirate Party wants to scrap Internet copyright protection legislation and has seen its membership shoot up since four members of a major filesharing site were jailed by a Swedish court in April.
Surveys give the party between 5.5 and 7.9 percent of the vote, above the 4.0 percent needed to get one of Sweden’s seats.
The campaign has been tough for many politicians. In the Czech Republic, there have been a series of egg attacks on Social Democrat chairman Jiri Paroubek.