BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Far-rightists were on course on Friday to make gains in a European Parliament election after an anti-immigration party in the Netherlands won votes from a centrist coalition dragged down by the global economic crisis.
The success of the far-right Freedom Party, which exit polls placed second in the Netherlands, could be part of a broader trend which political analysts said would produce a more fragmented assembly and could make legislation harder to agree.
“In many countries the mainstream parties look set to do comparatively badly and parties on the extreme end of the spectrum look set to benefit,” said Thomas Klau of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The Netherlands and Britain were the first countries to vote in the election Thursday and Irish and Czech voters were voting Friday.
In all 375 million people are eligible to vote in the 27 EU member states. The majority of states vote Sunday.
Polls predict a low turnout, even though the 736-member assembly has important powers, passing and shaping many EU laws, acting as a democratic watchdog over other institutions and passing the EU budget.
In the Netherlands, exit polls put the Freedom Party of Geert Wilders in second place with four of the 25 Dutch seats, against none in the last assembly.
The main parties in the ruling center-right coalition lost seats although the Christian Democrats remained ahead of the Freedom Party with five places, the exit polls showed.
In Britain, Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labor Party is likely to have fared badly following a scandal over national parliamentary expenses and the financial crisis.
The overall composition of the centrist-dominated parliament is unlikely to change radically. But far-right gains, and the decision of Britain’s Conservatives to split from the main bloc of EU conservatives, is likely to mean more fragmentation.
“The danger is that this makes legislation much more difficult and harder for the European Parliament to build majorities around single projects,” Klau said.
“This will make things more confusing for citizens and harder to predict for stakeholders including businesses.”
In Ireland, the governing Fianna Fail party was expected to suffer a setback but it was not clear how well the Libertas party which opposes the EU’s Lisbon reform treaty would do.
Several other ruling parties fear the worst because of dissatisfaction with the way they have handled the worst recession since the 1930s. Unemployment is rising fast and EU leaders are accused of doing too little, too late.
Sara Hagemann, of the European Policy Center, said voting was likely to be dominated by highly educated voters or those with strong opinions about the EU.
“If we have a very fragmented parliament it would of course be bad news for Europe,” she said.
Political analysts said the stance of Britain’s Eurosceptic Conservatives was a challenge to how parliament will function and to EU reform efforts.
The Conservatives, who lead opinion polls before a British parliamentary election due next year, want a referendum in Britain on the Lisbon treaty which would streamline decision-making now the bloc has expanded to 27 member states.
They say the treaty hands too much power to Brussels and is similar to the now defunct EU constitution and may seek to reverse Britain’s ratification, if, as expected, they win the next national election.
Editing by Timothy Heritage and Charles Dick