Berlin (CNSNews.com) – On the eve of a European Parliament election viewed as potentially the most significant in years, far-right populist parties are anticipating large gains, predicted by some to win one-third of the 751 seats.
If long-dominant center-left and center-right blocs are left unable to form a coalition, the populist bloc will wield greater influence than ever before.
Since the last election in 2014, the European Union has struggled to maintain unity in the face of divisive issues including migration, terrorism, Brexit, trade wars, and tensions with the U.S. over Iran.
The European Council of Foreign Relations last month found that the most pressing issues on voters’ minds include Islamic radicalism (important to 22 percent of the E.U. voting population), the economy (16 percent), migration as a threat to the E.U. (15 percent) and the rise of nationalism (11 percent).
A Eurobarometer survey last week showed support for EU. membership at its highest level since 1983 (55 percent), but also found that a majority of voters fear the E.U. could collapse.
Three quarters of respondents across the bloc felt politics was broken at the national or E.U. levels, or both. In France only 15 percent of respondents though the current political system works well.
In another striking finding, a YouGov poll showed as many as one-third of voters in France and Poland, and more than a quarter of voters in Germany, viewed war between E.U. member states in the coming decade was a “realistic possibility.”
Currently, far right and nationalist parties hold a combined total of 78 seats in the European Parliament, just ten percent of the total.
If populist parties win 33 percent or more of the seats, that bloc would enjoy more power to intervene in matters on foreign policy, eurozone reform, freedom of movement, and civil rights.
Twelve nationalist and far-right parties from across Europe will join forces in an alliance called the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group, which could be the third-largest in parliament.
The ENF was formed by Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini, whose Northern League party and another anti-establishment, euroskeptic party, the Five Star movement, became part of the Italian government last summer.
On Saturday, far right politicians flocked to Milan, Italy, to take part in a rally ahead of the election.
One of the attendees, France’s Marine Le Pen, predicted that the election would see far-right populist parties move “from 8th place to third or second.”
One populist party on the back foot this week is the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), a member of Austria’s ruling coalition until Chancellor Sebastian Kurz called snap elections at the weekend.
He did so after the FPÖ’s Heinz-Christian Strache – the now former vice chancellor – was filmed offering lucrative business deals to a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch.
The Austria scandal featured in a pre-election debate in Germany on Monday, when leaders from six of Germany’s major parties warned against populism.
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, head of center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), said what happened in Austria was “a signal, one week before the election, not to vote for right-wing populists.”
Germany’s own far right Alternative für Deutschland party, also taking part in the debate, dismissed the Austria scandal as an isolated incident and a “purely domestic” matter.
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, visiting Vienna for a labor conference on Tuesday, declined to comment on the Austrian political crisis.
But, he told reporters, “Next Sunday is the European elections. This is the day that can be used to turn one’s back on the danger from the right.”
More than 426 million people are eligible to vote between Thursday and Sunday.
Voting is staggered, with the Netherlands and Britain (which is taking part due to Brexit delays) voting first on Thursday, a handful of others on Friday and Saturday, and the bulk on Sunday.
The first projections of the overall results are expected late on Sunday.