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Europe goes to the polls with EU skeptics poised to make gains

By Ian Wishart

Voters across the European Union give their verdict today on policy makers’ handling of the euro- area debt crisis in elections to the European Parliament that may shape the future of the 28-nation bloc.

The world’s second-largest democratic exercise after India’s elections concludes with polls forecasting a surge by protest parties from the U.K. to Greece that reject the EU or demand the end of German-style fiscal austerity.

“Governments are being blamed for harsh economic times,” said Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg Bank in London. “If you pursue austerity and harsh reforms, it doesn’t make you popular.”

While anti-establishment forces aren’t projected to take over the EU Parliament, their stronger presence would create more distractions for vulnerable national governments and threaten to slow down areas of European legislative business from financial-industry rules to energy-market liberalization.

Even as threats to the euro have waned, better economic data have been slow to trickle through, fueling grievances about budget cuts, joblessness and immigration.

Voters in France are forecast to rally behind Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration National Front, and in Britain, local elections that took place on May 22 showed gains by Nigel Farage’s U.K. Independence Party, which wants to pull Britain out of the EU.

Results Announced

Anti-EU politicians are poised to more than double their share of seats in the Parliament to almost 20 percent, with post-communist parties also forecast to make gains. The results of the election, involving about 400 million eligible voters, are scheduled to be announced from 11 p.m. in Brussels tonight.

Initial exit polls from the Netherlands showed a setback for Geert Wilders’s anti-EU Freedom Party, which may have come in fourth after targeting a first-place finish. That preliminary picture prompted cheers from backers of greater European integration.

“The Dutch results show that there is everything to play for,” Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister who is a member of the EU Parliament, said in an e-mailed statement.

Verhofstadt, who is also the leader in the EU assembly of the pro-business Liberal group, is one of five candidates running for president of the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm.

Commission President

The link between the election and the job of commission chief has never been stronger because of new rules requiring national leaders to “take account” of the legislative elections when nominating a successor to Jose Barroso of Portugal, whose term at the helm of the commission ends in October. The largest European party in the Parliament after the elections will have a claim to the top commission job.

Polls put the Christian Democratic bloc, which includes German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, and the Socialists backed by French President Francois Hollande neck-and-neck for first place. The Christian Democrats fielded former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker as their candidate to head the commission, while the Socialists favored Parliament President Martin Schulz of Germany.

EU leaders, who are due to meet for an informal summit over dinner in Brussels on May 27, may ignore the contest and choose their own candidate to run the commission and “dare” the Parliament to vote against that candidate, Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, said in a blog posting.

While populist and nationalist parties will do better than in earlier EU elections, they will “ultimately fail to achieve much political influence in the European Parliament, which will instead –- again -– be governed by a de facto grand coalition,” he said.

[Bloomberg]

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