EU votes as far right challenges Macron

Brussels | Voters were called out for a third day in EU parliamentary elections on Saturday as the far right hoped to win a major breakthrough and deny a pro-Europe victory for French President Emmanuel Macron.

Polls were open in Malta, Slovakia and Latvia, with most of the bloc’s 28 member states — including big players Germany, France and Italy — to vote on Sunday.

More than 400 million people are eligible to elect 751 members of the European Parliament, with the first official results announced late Sunday once voting in all EU countries is over.

Polling has shown for months that eurosceptics and the anti-immigration far right could make big gains in the vote, which will also help determine who replaces Jean-Claude Juncker as head of the European Commission as well as other top jobs.

France’s staunchly pro-European Macron has a big stake in the outcome, hoping to see his centrist Republique en Marche make a strong showing and shake-up EU politics in a direct challenge to the nationalists.

But Marine Le Pen of France’s National Rally (RN) has teamed up with Matteo Salvini of Italy’s anti-immigrant League and wants their Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group to become the third largest in the assembly.

Salvini’s League tops the polls in Italy and Le Pen’s RN party has an edge in France, with around 25 percent support against Macron’s 22.5 percent.

“Once again Macron is daring us to challenge him. Well let’s take him at his word: On May 26, we’ll challenge him in the voting booth,” Le Pen said at a rally on Friday.

Eurosceptics got a major boost from Britain’s Nigel Farage whose Brexit Party, according to polls, will score a resounding victory in the UK.

If that is confirmed, the veteran Brexiteer would likely team up with Italy’s anti-establishment Five Star movement to become another force of disruption in parliament.

Britain voted on Thursday, with Farage’s in-roads helping push Prime Minister Theresa May to step down following months of Brexit crisis.

Farage was handed the opportunity when May was forced to hold the EU elections after delaying Brexit beyond the original date of March 29 because of deadlock in the UK parliament over her divorce deal.

However, Europhiles on Thursday got an unexpected boost after exit polls in the Netherlands showed a surprise victory for pro-EU socialists, giving hope to pro-Europe establishment forces elsewhere in the bloc.

Mainstream forces also had reason to cheer from an exit poll in Ireland that suggested Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael party, which aligns with the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), was in the lead.

The EPP, which is also home to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party, will likely emerge once again with the largest share of the vote but perhaps not enough to control parliament in a grand coalition with the socialists as it has done for a generation.

The days following the election will see the launch of elaborate negotiations to determine key positions in the European institutions, with an EU leaders summit on Tuesday to discuss who gets which jobs.

“It is hard to overstate the importance of this week’s European Parliament elections,” said Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia Group.

“Besides determining the composition of the next Parliament, the results will also be critical in shaping the future character and profile of the European Union,” he said.

Turnout is as ever a major concern in the EU elections, with voters in Slovakia historically the least interested, having just 13 percent show up for the last polls five years ago.

Analysts said Slovakia would most likely elect one far right MEP while Czech voters — who were voting for a second day on Saturday — seemed set to hand victory to the ruling ANO, polls suggested.

Disinformation is also a worry, though evidence so far has not revealed the level of meddling by foreign actors seen in the US election of Donald Trump in 2016, EU officials said.

Fearing a wave of fake news the EU’s External Action Service has set up a rapid alert system, with a dozen staff, to closely watch social media and warn of possible risks of interference.

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