Dutch anti-EU populist Geert Wilders appeared to suffer a setback as European parliament elections were held in the Netherlands and Britain on Thursday, despite predictions of continental gains for the far-right. Exit polls showed a disappointing result for anti-Islam Wilders, but that was not expected to buck the Europe-wide momentum of anti-immigration parties bent on dismantling the European Union from the inside.
Some 400 million Europeans are eligible for the elections, spread over four days in the EU's 28 member states, and which come as the EU struggles for relevance in the aftermath of the eurozone crisis and grapples with the chaos on its borders in Ukraine.
An IPSOS exit poll published by Dutch state broadcaster NOS said Wilders' Party for Freedom had won just 12.2% of the vote, down from 17% at the last election in 2009. The exit polls said the pro-Europe centrist D66 and CDA Christian Democrats had won the most votes, with 15.6% and 15.2% respectively.
Analysts had predicted Wilders' party might suffer because of voter apathy among Dutch eurosceptics, while those in favour of the EU were much more likely to turn out. The exit polls would mean that the PVV wins 3 MEP seats, while D66 and CDA win four each.
A rally of Wilders' party faithful at a beachfront pub in The Hague fell silent as result predictions were released. "The exit polls are disappointing," Wilders said, blaming the result on the low turnout of 37%. "We will keep pushing the fight hard in Brussels, from tomorrow we will look for parties to collaborate with in Europe," he said.
The Netherlands is only sending 26 MEPs to the 751-seat European parliament, and bigger anti-EU parties, including Britain's UK Independence Party (UKIP) led by Nigel Farage, are expected to score big successes.
Most of the other EU states vote on Sunday, with the exception of Ireland and the Czech Republic on Friday, and Latvia, Malta and Slovakia on Saturday.
When the final results are announced from 2100 GMT on Sunday, eurosceptic parties may top the polls in Britain, France and Italy.
UKIP's rise has rocked the British political establishment as a party without a single seat in its national parliament heads into the European election ahead of the main opposition Labour Party, according to opinion polls. The party's rise was seen as a factor in Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron's pledge to hold a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU in late 2017.
"The immigration floodgate needs shutting – how can you bring more people over if there's not enough jobs for your own people?" James Donaghy, 66, told AFP as he voted for UKIP in Sevenoaks, southeast England.
Farage 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. As he cast his vote in a village school, Farage rejected claims his party was racist and said he wanted to cause a political "earthquake". "If we get what we like, things will never be quite the same again," he told reporters, with his party expected looking certain to increase the nine seats it currently holds.
Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy reignited the debate on the other side of the English Channel, saying that reform of the EU was necessary to halt the rise of populist parties. In an opinion piece published Thursday, Sarkozy called for the end of Europe's visa-free Schengen area and the creation of a Franco-German economic bloc at the heart of the eurozone.
Jobless turn against EU
With 26 million people out of work across the EU, eurosceptic and far-right parties have picked up massive support on anti-immigration and anti-EU platforms. The latest opinion 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, with the European People's Party (EPP) on track for 217 seats against 201 for the Socialists and Democrats (S&D).