Netherlands opens European election with far right tipped to excel

Immigration one of the main issues as voting gets under way for the new European Parliament

Voting starts at a polling station in Baarle-Nassau, the Netherlands, on Thursday, the first day of the European Parliament elections. AFP
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The four-day European election kicked off on Thursday in the Netherlands where opinion polls suggested an expected win by the Dutch far right, which has made fighting immigration a headline issue.

Far-right candidate Geert Wilders urged the public to "put the Netherlands first with a much stricter asylum policy" as he cast his vote.

A nationwide opinion poll published on the eve of the vote put Mr Wilders' anti-immigration Freedom Party (PVV) in a tie for first place with the Labour/GreenLeft combination, with both projected to win eight seats.

This would represent a huge gain for Mr Wilders, who failed to secure even one seat in the last EU election in 2019.

The Dutch election is widely viewed as a bellwether for European sentiment as more than 370 million people go to the polls for the only election in the world where voters from multiple countries vote for a single Parliament.

Opinion polls suggest the right and far-right are likely to progress across the continent, with the far-right possibly grabbing a quarter of the EU Parliament's 720 seats. Politicians have promoted themes such as a tougher stance on migration and more support for industry and security.

Mr Wilders is one of many far-right European leaders who hopes for increased power in the European Parliament by making allies with like-minded politicians in France, Belgium, Austria and Italy.

The 60-year old veteran politician is part of a Dutch coalition government after a surprise election victory last year.

His call to shift the European Parliament to the right has resonated with Dutch voters such as Simone Nieuwenhuys, a 48-year-old government worker.

"I want the EU to change ... I want an extra voice that puts on the brakes" on immigration, she told AFP after giving her vote to the PVV.

An exit poll will be published when voting closes at 9pm CET. Results will be announced when polls have closed in all 27 member countries on Sunday night.

Current European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who is seeking a second term, has opened the door to her European People's Party (EPP) working with the far right to ensure legislation is passed.

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

The Parliament is widely viewed as the weakest of the three EU institutions because it cannot propose legislation, though it plays an important role as co-legislator.

The EU elections take place at a time of deep geopolitical uncertainty, with voters viewing the bloc as a haven of stability in an unstable world.

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.

The possibility of Donald Trump returning as US president after November's election has also focused European minds and given a boost to parties in the EU aligned with Trump's nationalist views.

Updated: June 06, 2024, 11:02 AM