Starting with Britain and the Netherlands, Europe began voting on Thursday for a new European Parliament, an election in which fringe parties of the right and left are expected to capitalize on low voter turnout and anger over immigration and anemic economies in the wake of the financial crisis. Results will not be officially announced until Sunday night but exit polls cited by Dutch media late on Thursday indicated that the far-right Party of Freedom, led by anti-immigration maverick Geert Wilders, had performed less well than forecast. In a 10-party Dutch race, Mr. Wilders’ party, weakened by campaign blunders and infighting, placed third or fourth behind solidly pro-European political forces, worse than its second place finish at the last European elections in 2009, Dutch media reported. Whether the expected success for the fringe parties elsewhere marks a lasting shift in Europe — or whether it will die away in future elections — the results may provide Europe’s extremists an outsized platform to influence the politics of their home nations and beyond. With centrist groups struggling to contain radicals on both flanks, the new parliament is expected to have more populist lawmakers than ever before from parties opposed to free trade and European integration.
One thing it may well do, for example, is derail a trans-Atlantic trade pact that both Washington and Brussels have been pushing as a spur to economic growth. The parliament has rejected agreements with the United States in the past, but nothing on this scale.
That prospect brings into focus the growing importance of an assembly that, according to opinion polls, nonetheless may have less public support than ever and has yet to escape its reputation as a refuge for has-beens and never-will-bes who would have trouble winning office in their home countries.
“The extremists risk exaggerating the reaction of the new parliament to the relative economic decline of Europe — not by making Europe more humble or cooperative — but by making it more confrontational and less willing to reciprocate,” said Fredrik Erixon, the director of the European Center for International Political Economy, a research group in Brussels. “That is a toxic mix for provoking big commercial fights with other parts of the world, including with the United States.”