Polling stations in twenty EU countries open as voting for the European Parliament enters its final day

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BRUSSELS (AP) — Polling stations have opened in 20 European Union countries, from Sweden and Lithuania in the north to Portugal and Cyprus in the south, as voters choose their representatives for the European Parliament’s next five-year term.

BRUSSELS (AP) — Polling stations have opened in 20 European Union countries, from Sweden and Lithuania in the north to Portugal and Cyprus in the south, as voters choose their representatives for the European Parliament’s next five-year term.

Unofficial estimates will be released from 1615 GMT, but official results cannot be published before the last polling stations in the 27 EU countries close late on Sunday evening.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

Voters head to the polls for the European Union’s election super Sunday amid concerns that a likely shift to the political right will undermine the world’s largest trading bloc’s ability to make decisions as war rages in Ukraine and anti-migrant sentiment rises .

Citizens in twenty countries, from the Alpine country of Austria to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, will cast their votes to elect 720 members of the European Parliament. Seats in the assembly are allocated based on population, ranging from six in Malta or Luxembourg to 96 in Germany.

The official results of the elections, which are held every five years and started in the Netherlands on Thursday, cannot be published before the last polling stations in the 27 EU countries close – those in Italy at 11pm (9pm GMT). Unofficial estimates will start trickling in from 1615 GMT.

An unofficial exit poll on Thursday suggested that Geert Wilders’ anti-migrant hard-right party should make significant gains in the Netherlands, even though a coalition of pro-European parties has likely pushed it to second place.

Since the last EU elections in 2019, populist or far-right parties now lead governments in three countries – Hungary, Slovakia and Italy – and are part of the ruling coalition in others, including Sweden, Finland and soon the Netherlands. Opinion polls give populists an advantage in France, Belgium, Austria and Italy.

The elections come at a time when voter confidence is being tested in a bloc of some 450 million people. Over the past five years, the EU has been rocked by the coronavirus pandemic, an economic slump and an energy crisis fueled by Europe’s biggest land conflict since World War II.

The polls also mark the beginning of a period of uncertainty for Europeans and their international partners. In addition to the scramble to form political groups and build alliances within parliament, governments will compete to secure top jobs in the EU for their national civil servants.

Chief among these is the presidency of the powerful executive branch, the European Commission, which proposes laws and ensures they are respected. The commission also controls the EU’s purse strings, manages trade and is Europe’s competition watchdog.

Other top posts include the president of the European Council, who chairs summits of presidents and prime ministers, and the EU’s foreign policy chief, the bloc’s top diplomat.

EU lawmakers have a say in legislation ranging from financial rules to climate or agricultural policies. They also approve the EU budget, which in addition to funding the bloc’s political priorities, also finances things like infrastructure projects, agricultural subsidies or aid to Ukraine.

But despite their important role, political campaigns often focus on issues of importance in individual countries, rather than on broader European interests. Voters routinely use their ballots to protest the policies of their national governments.

Surveys show that mainstream and pro-European parties will retain their majority in parliament, but that the far right, including parties led by politicians such as Wilders or France’s Marine Le Pen, will eat up their share of seats.

The largest political group – the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) – has already moved away from the middle and is campaigning on traditional far-right issues such as greater security, stricter migration laws and a focus on business over social welfare interests.

Much may depend on whether the Brothers of Italy – the ruling party of populist far-right Prime Minister Georgia Meloni, which has neo-fascist roots – remains in the more hard-line position of the European Conservatives and Reformists, or becomes part of a new hard-right front. group that could be formed in the aftermath of the elections. Meloni also has the opportunity to work with the EVP.

The second largest group – the centre-left Socialists and Democrats – and the Greens refuse to join the ECR. A more disastrous scenario for pro-European parties would be if the ECR were to join forces with Le Pen’s Identity and Democracy to consolidate the influence of the hard right.

Questions remain about which group Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s staunchly nationalist and anti-migrant party Fidesz might join. It was previously part of the EPP but was forced to leave in 2021 due to conflicts over its interests and values.

The EPP has campaigned for Ursula von der Leyen to be given a second term as committee chair, but nothing guarantees she will be returned even if they win. National leaders will decide who gets nominated, even though parliament must approve each nominee.

Lorne Cook, The Associated Press