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Strong showing by Dutch far right as EU vote kicks off

Voters in The Netherlands on Thursday boosted the party of anti-immigration eurosceptic Geert Wilders into second place at EU elections, an exit polled showed, after predictions of big far-right gains across the bloc at the four-day ballot.


Most of the European Union’s 27 countries will cast their votes Sunday for the bloc’s parliament, making the Dutch ballot a closely watched barometer of voter sentiment.

The projection from national broadcaster NOS had The Green/Labour alliance of former European commissioner Frans Timmermans on eight seats, one ahead of Wilders’ PVV Freedom Party.

While not the clear victory forecast for extreme-right firebrand Wilders, the outcome still represents major gains from the single seat his party acquired after Brexit.

But the result might also provide some comfort for more centrist parties hoping to maintain their clear majority in the EU’s incoming 720-seat parliament.

Wilders’ party had been riding high in the polls since his shock triumph at national elections last year saw it force its way into a coalition government for the first time.

Wilders was quick to trumpet his party as the “biggest winner” and said it could end up with more seats once the full results are tallied on Sunday.

But his chief opponent Timmermans insisted it was “an important signal that all pro-European parties did well in this election”.

Wilders focused his campaign on promises to cut immigration — and that message appeared to resonate with many voters.

“I want the EU to change,” 48-year-old government worker Simone Nieuwenhuys told AFP after casting her ballot.

“We’re too open. We should be more critical as to who we let in because it costs a lot of money.”

– ‘Europe could be blocked’ –

Surveys suggesting the far right overall could grab a quarter of the EU parliament’s seats have rattled its main groupings, the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) and the leftist Socialists and Democrats.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday warned the EU risked being hamstrung by a big far-right presence after this week’s elections.

Current European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, seeking a second term, has opened the door to her EPP working with the far right to ensure legislation is passed.

Von der Leyen, a polyglot former German defence minister, has been courting Italian premier Giorgia Meloni, who heads the post-fascist Brothers of Italy party.

EU leaders, including Meloni, will decide after the elections who should helm the commission. Their choice needs the backing of a simple majority in the European Parliament.

– ‘Wake up’ call –

The EU recently overhauled immigration policies to toughen its borders and speed up deportations, but there are already calls from some quarters for an even stricter approach.

In Ireland — which picks up the EU election baton on Friday morning — migration and the asylum system have also emerged as leading issues.

Many candidates are running on an anti-immigration platform, either as independents or as members of various fringe nationalist parties which until now have enjoyed limited success at the ballot box.

The EU elections are happening at a time of deep geopolitical uncertainty, with many voters viewing the bloc as a haven of stability.

Member countries, which have thrown their support behind Ukraine as it fights off Russia’s invasion, are also confronted with increasing US-China rivalry, turmoil in the Middle East, trade tensions and climate change.

In The Netherlands, while Wilders’ message galvanised some voters, for others it was a “wake up” call.

Claudia Balhuizen, a 42-year-old engineer, argued for more EU unity in the face of climate change — though she admitted Wilders “is getting a lot more attractive for a lot of people and I can understand that”.

– Far-right alliance? –

While The Netherlands was an early test of the far right’s fortunes, scrutiny will soon shift to the EU’s bigger economies as they open their polling stations.

Marine Le Pen’s National Rally is predicted to come out on top in France, as is Meloni’s party in Italy and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s far-right Fidesz.

In Germany, the extreme-right AfD is polling second, behind the opposition conservatives. In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party looks on track for victory.

Polling data compiled by Politico project von der Leyen’s EPP winning 172 seats in the next parliament, followed by the Socialists and Democrats, with 143 seats.

Third place could go to the centrist Renew Group, eyeing 75 seats — unless it is overtaken by far-right parties mulling the formation of a supergroup, as Le Pen wants.

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