EU elections shift to Ireland as populist forces gather elsewhere
A pedestrian walks past a polling station in Hull, northeast England as the country votes in the European Parliament elections on May 23, 2019. Voting got under way in Britain early on Thursday in elections to the European Parliament -- a contest the country had not expected to hold nearly three years after the Brexit referendum.(Oli SCARFF / AFP)
(AFP) - Phased EU-wide elections take place in Ireland on Friday after a campaign dominated by concerns over neighbouring Britain's messy bid to leave the bloc, and as eurosceptic forces elsewhere in Europe hope to create a political earthquake.
Citizens in Ireland, where support for the European Union has risen because of Brexit, start voting at 7:00 am (0600 GMT).
Also on Friday the Czech Republic will kick off its two-day voting process, a day after residents cast their votes in Britain and also in the Netherlands where the Labour party scored a surprise victory to win most seats in the elections.
In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May is on the brink of resigning having not fulfilled her promise to lead the country out of the EU by March 29.
The Brexit Party, which was only set up this year by veteran eurosceptic Nigel Farage, is expected to score a resounding victory in Britain's vote.
The anticipated success of the Brexit Party, polling at around 35 percent, is emblematic of rising anti-establishment forces across Europe.
Around the continent, where most EU member states vote on Sunday, pro-European leaders are scrambling to mobilise their supporters to resist the populist surge, with opinion polls showing nationalist parties in the lead in France, Italy and Hungary, among others.
They fear a good showing for the eurosceptics will disrupt Brussels' decision-making and threaten reform efforts for closer integration.
- 'It's been disgraceful' -
The elections for the European Parliament held in Britain Thursday were a surreal spectacle for a country that voted almost three years ago to leave the EU.
May had promised that Britain would not take part in this year's polls, but failure to get parliamentary approval for her Brexit deal left the country with no choice.
Her Conservative party's predicted wipeout has left her teetering on the edge, with her resignation expected imminently.
"It's been disgraceful the way the government has gone on," said Brexit Party voter Chris Fetherstone, 73, in the northern England town of Middlesbrough.
"What Theresa May has said, about leaving, she's never meant it."
Artist Gordon Dickson, 47, expressed the opposite as he voted in Glasgow.
"I wanted to make sure that my voice about saying Scotland should be remaining part of the European Union was heard and heard really clearly," he said.
- Nationalist surge -
More than 400 million European voters are eligible to elect 751 members of the European Parliament, with the first results to be announced late Sunday once voting in all 28 member states has been completed.
Matteo Salvini of Italy's anti-immigrant League and Marine Le Pen of France's far-right National Rally (RN) want their Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group to become the third largest in Brussels. The League has topped opinion polls in Italy.
For her part Le Pen wants to strike a blow to Emmanuel Macron's faltering French presidency by overtaking his centrist, pro-European party Republic on the Move (LREM).
Polls give her RN party a slight edge, with around 23 percent support.
"Everything has changed," Le Pen told AFP.
"In the space of a few months, a whole range of political forces have risen up in spectacular fashion."
However, in the Netherlands leftists notched up an unexpected victory to take the most seats on Thursday, beating the party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte and an upstart populist group, an exit poll said.
- Pro-EU resistance -
The strong showing by eurosceptics is not expected to sweep the whole bloc, with voters from Spain to the former Soviet Baltic states indicating solid backing for the EU.
In Germany, surveys show Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU party -- a heavyweight in the EU-wide centre-right EPP group -- in first place, with the Greens second.
In Ireland, the Brexit crisis has been the key issue due to the future its border with the British-ruled province of Northern Ireland, a key sticking point in negotiations between London and Brussels.
Most mainstream parties in Ireland have campaigned heavily on cementing its place in the European project.
MEP hopefuls also pledged to dampen the economic shock predicted to radiate into Ireland as a result of its largest trading partner leaving the bloc.
© Agence France-Presse