BRUSSELS Voters in 27 countries choose a new European Parliament this week in an election likely to be marred by apathy and dominated by protest votes against national governments struggling to combat the global economic crisis.
More than 375 million people are eligible to take part in four days of voting across the European Union that starts in Britain and the Netherlands on Thursday, but opinion polls suggest fewer than half the electorate will vote.
Few of the EU's 495 million citizens have much interest in the assembly or much knowledge of what it does, even though it shapes many pan-European laws, endorses the EU executive and budget, and will gain power under the EU's Lisbon reform treaty.
Centrists are expected to remain dominant in the 736-member chamber. But a low turnout could favor fringe parties and extremists, without giving them enough votes to hold up laws such as urgent reforms of the financial regulation system.
"We appeal to all Europeans to vote in the European elections," French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angel Merkel wrote in an article published in German and French newspapers on Sunday.
"There is no better way to support the goal of a strong (European) Union and a safer world," they wrote.
Merkel and Sarkozy have their own concerns. The vote in Germany will test the political waters before a federal election in September. In France, Sarkozy's governing UMP could face a rise in support for far-right parties.
Governing parties in other countries, including Britain, Ireland and several EU member states in eastern Europe, are even more concerned as people vote on national issues and scandals, including how governments have handled the economic crisis.
PRESSURE MOUNTS ON GOVERNMENTS
The EU eventually agreed on a fiscal stimulus package amounting to 5 percent of the bloc's economic output but its response to the crisis, and that of many national leaders, has been widely criticized as too little, too late.
Unemployment is rising -- data on Tuesday showed it at 9.2 percent in the 16 countries that use the euro currency -- and several governments have faced social unrest.
Even so, the European People's Party and European Democrats (EPP-ED), a center-right group, is widely expected to remain the main force in the parliament although the Party of European Socialists (PES) could gain seats, opinion polls suggest.
"It (the vote) is always more about the national political arena and sending a message to the sitting government," said Hugo Brady of the Center for European Reform in London.
The governing Fianna Fail party is expected to suffer a setback in Ireland, which also holds local elections, but it is not clear how well the Libertas party which opposes the Lisbon reform treaty will fare.
The treaty, on which Ireland holds a referendum in the autumn, is intended to streamline decision-making in the EU and would give the parliament more powers in setting legislation.
A crushing defeat for the Labour Party would increase pressure for ministerial changes in Britain, which also holds local elections this week and is mired in a scandal over expenses claimed by members of the national parliament.
The election also comes at a difficult time for Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is hoping for a resounding win to silence scandals about his love life and business dealings that threaten his credibility.
The new parliament's tasks will include helping shape -- and pass -- laws on anything from the environment to supervision of Europe's financial system to try to avert another credit crunch.
It will also have the final say in appointing the next president of the European Commission, the EU's executive and a powerful regulatory body, and its endorsement is also required for the entire Commission to take office.
First results are expected after 4:00 p.m. EDT on Sunday.