BRUSSELS (AP) — From Portugal to Finland, voters of 21 nations on Sunday were deciding the makeup of the next European Parliament, a sprawling exercise in democracy that will help determine the European Union’s future leaders and course.
Opinion polls were predicting that candidates who want to slash the EU’s powers or even abolish it could scoop up as many as a third of the seats – which would be the strongest showing ever of disillusionment with the bloc.
When official returns are announced Sunday night, they could herald changes in EU policy in areas ranging from border control and immigration to a new trade and investment agreement being negotiated with the U.S.
Europeans in seven other nations have already voted. Unofficial exit polls reported a surge in support for Britain’s anti-EU UKIP party. In the Netherlands, however, the right-wing Euroskeptic Party for Freedom dropped from second to fourth place, the pollsters reported.
The 751-seat parliament is the only popularly elected body in the 28-nation European Union. Never before have so many candidates been bent on radically curtailing the EU’s powers, ending their country’s membership or shutting down the union entirely.
“We believe the best people to govern Britain are the British people themselves. We believe in running our own country, being proud of our democracy, controlling our borders,” UKIP leader Nigel Farage told The Associated Press in an interview. “We want our country back. It’s been sold out.”
However, many Europeans remain attached to the EU, associating it with greater economic opportunity and prosperity. One of them is Spanish grain and olive farmer Fidel del Olmo.
“If Europe had not existed, Spanish agriculture would have disappeared,” del Olmo said, citing the EU subsidies he and other farmers receive.
“For me, Europe is something of a nation because now we depend on it for almost everything,” said the 57-year-old farmer from central Spain. “This is something people don’t understand. They think the politicians just go there and that’s it.”
In Belgium, where voters on Sunday were also choosing the country’s parliament and regional legislatures, authorities stepped up security measures after an armed attack on the Brussels Jewish Museum killed three people on Saturday.
AP correspondents Jill Lawless in London and Ciaran Giles in Madrid contributed.