Turnout surges as voters set stage for battle for EU's soul
Each previous EU election since the first in 1979 has seen turnout fall, but initial figures suggest a different story this time around.
BRUSSELS: Europeans headed to the polls in their tens of millions Sunday as turnout surged in an election billed as a battle between the nationalist right and pro-EU forces over the future of the union.
Each previous EU election since the first in 1979 has seen turnout fall, but initial figures from across the 28-nation bloc suggested this year's culture clash has mobilised both populists and those who oppose them.
"I guess that some marginal parties will be less marginal tonight," European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said as he cast his vote in his native Luxembourg.
In the Polish seaport of Sopot, European Council chief Donald Tusk expressed confidence that voters would not back what he called "radical political movements, eurosceptics".
"The first priority, not only for this institution, is to save the EU as a project, not only at this time but in the long term, and I'm sure that they will manage," he told reporters.
Greens gaining ground
Eurosceptic parties opposed to the project of ever closer union hope to capture as many as a third of the seats in the 751-member assembly, disrupting Brussels' pro-integration consensus.
The populists were expected to make some progress, but exit polls also predicted a good showing for the Greens who, in Germany for example, were poised to beat the score of the main socialist parties for the first time
The far-right parties of Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and France's Marine Le Pen will lead the populist charge, and anti-EU ranks will be swelled by the Brexit Party of British populist Nigel Farage.
French President Emmanuel Macron has taken it upon himself to act as figurehead for the centrist and liberal parties hoping to shut the nationalists out of key EU jobs and decision-making.
"Once again Macron is daring us to challenge him. Well let's take him at his word: On May 26, we'll challenge him in the voting booth," Le Pen told a rally on Friday.
It was not clear which side was carrying the day, but the battle seems to have motivated French voters, with 19.26 percent turning out, 3.5 percentage points up from the same time in 2014.
Turnout was also markedly higher in Germany, Spain, Poland, Hungary, Romania and several more member states, but remained comparable to 2014 in Italy.
German conservative Manfred Weber, lead candidate for the centre-right EPP group in the EU parliament hailed the high turnout, declaring: "European democracy is very much alive."
'Extremists are mobilising'
Meanwhile, the mainstream parties are vying between themselves for influence over the choice of a new generation of top EU officials, including the powerful president of the European Commission.
Turnout will be closely scrutinised in case another drop in participation undermines the credibility of the EU parliament as it seeks to establish its authority.
Britain and the Netherlands were first to vote, on Thursday, followed by Ireland and the Czech Republic on Friday with Slovakia, Malta and Latvia on Saturday, leaving the bulk of the 400 million eligible voters to join in on Sunday.
At the last EU election in 2014, Slovakia had the lowest turnout of any country, at less than 14 percent, and centrist President Andrej Kiska voiced concern that "extremists are mobilising".
Poland's right-wing government, led by Law and Justice (PiS), has been accused of breaking European law by undermining the independence of the judiciary, but Polish voters still say they support EU membership.
The right and the far-right have not had everything their own way.
In the Netherlands, the centre-left party of EU vice president Frans Timmermans won the most votes and added two seats for the Socialists and Democrats in parliament, according to exit polls.
The S and D's centre-right rival the European People's Party (EPP) was buoyed by exit polls suggesting that Prime Minister Leo Varadkar's pro-EU Fine Gael party was in the lead in Ireland.
Even if Britain leaves the European Union on October 31, the latest deadline set for its Brexit date, its MEPs could still play a role in this summer's scramble to hand out top jobs.
Thursday's votes from Britain will not be counted until after polls close in Italy, but Farage's Brexit Party appears on course to send a large delegation to a parliament it wants to abolish.
Macron is pinning his hopes on the liberal ALDE voting bloc -- which confirmed Sunday it would accept the French leader's movement into its ranks in Strasbourg -- to give impetus to his plans for deeper EU integration.
But much will depend on who gets the top jobs: the presidencies of the Council and the Commission, the speaker of parliament, the high representative for foreign policy and director of the European Central Bank.
EU leaders have been invited to a summit on Tuesday to decide the nominees. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to back Weber for the Commission, but Macron and some others oppose choosing a parliamentarian.
The European Parliament will give a voting estimate at 1815 GMT and provisional results will begin to emerge from 2100 GMT.