Dutch voters kick off EU election, nationalist parties seen gaining

Dutch voters kick off EU election, nationalist parties seen gaining

By Bart Biesemans and Lewis Macdonald

THE HAGUE (Reuters) -Dutch voters cast their ballots on Thursday at the start of a four-day election for the European Parliament that is likely to see a rightward shift in the continent's balance of power.

The election will shape how the European Union, a bloc of 450 million citizens, confronts external challenges, including a more aggressive Russia, increased industrial competition from China and the United States, climate change and immigration.

The vote in the Netherlands - where a nationalist party won a 2023 national election - also encapsulates the main internal political challenge facing the 27-nation EU: the rising popularity of nationalist and populist parties that want to dismantle the EU from within.

"I am concerned about these extreme right movements because they are populist movements," said Sebastiaan Bink, 57, a renewable energy worker who voted in The Hague.

"In the Netherlands we have a party which is very distrustful of the EU and some of these right-wing politicians are trying to sabotage the European collaboration, and that would be very harmful. It doesn't make any sense to me."

After Thursday's Dutch ballot, voting will take place on Friday in Ireland and the Czech Republic, in Malta, Slovakia and Latvia on Saturday, and then in the rest of the EU on Sunday.

Opinion polls suggest the Dutch anti-immigration Freedom Party (PVV) of Geert Wilders, which won last year's national election, will make gains and win eight seats in the European Parliament, tying with the Labour/GreenLeft combination.

Wilders failed to secure a seat in the previous European election in 2019 and although the polls show Europe's centre-right is likely to win the most seats in the new EU legislature, nationalist and populist parties are expected to make gains.

Wilders, known for his outspoken views on immigration and Islam, said on Thursday a good result for the nationalist parties should encourage them to unite in their bid to change EU regulations and repatriate more powers to national legislatures.

Their influence in the new EU parliament is nevertheless likely to be blunted by internal divisions.

Polls show pro-European parties on the centre-right and centre-left, liberals and Greens will have a smaller majority than in the outgoing parliament, complicating efforts to push through new EU laws or increase European integration.

COARSE ATMOSPHERE

Across much of Europe the political atmosphere is shifting, coarsened by the divisions and rhetoric of populist policies. Verbal and physical attacks on politicians in Germany have more than doubled since 2019.

The 720-seat parliament co-decides with the EU's 27 national governments on laws that govern the bloc's single market, its 1-trillion-euro ($1.09 trillion) long-term budget, fiscal rules and laws to prevent climate change.

Exit polls are expected soon after 1800 GMT on Sunday followed by first projections of the results after 2100 GMT.

Surveys of voter intentions show the centre-right is likely to win the largest share of seats, putting their candidate to head the European Commission, incumbent Ursula von der Leyen of Germany, in pole position to be appointed for a second term.

European Greens, facing a backlash from hard-pressed households, farmers and industry over costly EU policies limiting CO2 emissions, look set to be among the big losers.

The new parliament will decide on the EU's next seven-year budget, which must be in place from 2028, with Ukraine, Moldova and countries of the Western Balkans all seeking membership.

If those countries are to accede, EU governments and the parliament will need to agree on internal changes to how the bloc operates, including its agriculture subsidies and funds to even up living standards across the EU.

The rule of unanimity in voting may also need changing to meet the requirements of a larger bloc.

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(Reporting by Bart Biesemans and Lewis Macdonald in The Hague and Jan Strupczewski in Brussels; writing by Jan Strupczewski; Editing by Richard Lough, Timothy Heritage and Gareth Jones)