British, Dutch voters kick off four days of EU elections

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Jun 04 2009 11:04 AM | Updated as of Jun 04 2009 07:06 PM

BRUSSELS - EU parliamentary elections get underway Thursday in Britain and the Netherlands, with many countries braced for high abstention rates and protest votes which could boost extremist parties.

The four days of elections will roll out across Europe to elect a 736-seat European parliament in the biggest trans-national polls in history, with some 380 million voters in 27 member states eligible to vote.

Yet there are concerns in Brussels and elsewhere that the voters who do turn out will be focussing on the performance of their national governments rather than their European aspirations.

"I understand that people can feel tired of politics but in these elections we will vote on European issues, not domestic ones," Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer said on the eve of the polling.

"One cannot complain of the EU being undemocratic and at the same time refuse to go to the polls," added Fischer, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency.

Britain goes to the polls with Prime Minister Gordon Brown under increasing pressure amid a scandal over expense claims by members of the country's national parliament which has seen ministerial heads roll.

His ruling Labour Party looks is likely to be beaten into third place, at best, in the European polls according to opinion polls, with even the anti-EU UK Independence Party snapping at its heels.

In the Netherlands, set 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".

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.

EU leaders also fear the turnout rate, which has fallen with each election since the first in 1979, could slump to a new record low, despite the growing role which the parliament plays in adopting, amending or rejecting laws to be applied throughout Europe.

The parliament's reputation has been tarnished by its own expenses scandals and an aura of unnecessary spending engendered by its two chambers, one in Brussels and one in Strasbourg.

Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy made a joint appeal for European voters to turn out, but polls have indicated the abstention rate will be higher than the record 45 percent in 2004.

Outgoing EU parliament president Hans-Gert Poettering issued his own plea Wednesday.

"Today approximately 75 percent of the European Union legislation is decided by the European Parliament together with the council of ministers and has a direct impact in our daily lives," he said.

"The greater the participation, the less likely that votes for extremist parties will distort the outcome," Poettering cautioned.

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 near-complete results will only be known late Sunday after France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and 14 other countries have held their votes.

Centre-right parties are expected to remain the biggest group in the parliament no matter how well the protest parties perform, despite the fact that the opposition British Conservatives have decided to leave the European People's Party bloc and create its own grouping.