Europe's mammoth parliamentary elections kicked off on Thursday, with Britain and the Netherlands going to the polls in a vote that is expected to see a swing towards populist right-wing parties.
The elections, which are spread over four days in the European Union's 28 member states, are expected to see major gains for parties bent on dismantling the EU from the inside. The vote comes as the EU struggles for relevance in the aftermath of the euro financial crisis and as it grips with the chaos in on its borders in Ukraine.
"I believe in Europe, but I think there are far too many rules coming from Brussels," Margreet de Jonge, 63, told AFP as she cast her ballot in The Hague, echoing the view of many that the EU has become a bloated bureaucracy.
Polls opened at 0530 GMT in the Netherlands and 0600 GMT in Britain. When the results are announced from 2100 GMT on Sunday, eurosceptic parties may top the polls in Britain, France, Italy and the Netherlands. The anti-immigration and anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) of Nigel Farage, and Geert Wilders' virulently anti-Islam Party of Freedom (PVV), are both forecast to make big gains.
UKIP's rise has rocked the British political establishment as a party without a single representative in its national parliament heads into the European election ahead of the main opposition Labour Party, according to polls published by the Times and the Daily Mail newspapers on the morning of the vote.
Farage, a former financial trader who likes to hold court with journalists in the pub, has ruled out joining a far-right bloc of Wilders' party and France's National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, saying the National Front is anti-Semitic.
Jobless turn against EU
The European parliament has largely been dismissed as toothless in the past, but these elections are different because the winning bloc will for the first time be able to nominate a replacement for outgoing European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.
But with 26 million people out of work across the EU, including more than half of those aged under 25 in countries such as Greece and Spain, eurosceptic and far-right parties have picked up massive support on anti-immigration and anti-EU platforms. The latest polls show eurosceptics and others could secure almost 100 seats in the new parliament, trebling their number in the 751-seat assembly.
A survey by PollWatch showed conservatives holding a narrow lead over their Socialist rivals in the next parliament, with the European People's Party (EPP) on for 217 seats against 201 for the Socialists and Democrats (S&D). While that would leave the mainstream groups still the two biggest parties, the EPP would drop from 35.8% to just short of 29% of the total seats, with the S&D up marginally to 26.8%.
The top group will be able to put forward a candidate as head of the European Commission, the EU's executive bloc, later this year although EU national leaders are not necessarily duty-bound to accept it.
UKIP highlights the trend of a shift towards eurosceptic parties. It looks certain to sharply increase the 13 seats it currently holds in the European Parliament. It is also likely to do well in local council elections that also take place in Britain on Thursday.
Simon Hix, a political science specialist at the London School of Economics, told AFP: "It could be perceived as a breakthrough election (because) they could win seats and win votes in all parts of the country."
Nevertheless, UKIP has endured a troubled few days in the build-up to the election including accusations of racism.
In the Netherlands, Wilders' party hopes to garner six of the 26 seats up for grabs, although unlike Farage he is a lawmaker in his national parliament so will not stand for a Brussels seat. The platinum-haired Wilders has vowed to take the Netherlands out of the EU and abandon the euro but analysts said there was voter apathy among eurosceptics. "I believe in a Europe that is united and stands together," civil servant Marja Bijleveld told AFP as she became the first to vote at a train station in The Hague.