BRUSSELS – Voting began in Britain and the Netherlands Thursday in a European Parliament election which is expected to punish governments that have struggled to cope with the global economic crisis.
More than 375 million people are eligible to take part in four days of voting that ends Sunday, when the majority of the 27 European Union's member states vote.
Opinion polls point to a low turnout and voter apathy, even though the 736-member assembly will have important powers to shape pan-European laws, and predicted gains for extremists at the expense of governing parties including Britain's Labor.
Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the executive European Commission, appealed for a high turnout on the 20th anniversary of an election that ended decades of communist rule in Poland.
The best tribute that we can pay to all those who fought with courage and determination for freedom and democracy, in Poland and elsewhere, is to make use of our democratic rights. I ask all EU citizens: raise your voice and cast your vote, he said.
A new opinion poll showed the center-right European People's Party was likely to remain the largest group in parliament with 262 seats -- just over one third of places. It put the Socialist group in second place on 194 seats, or just over one quarter.
The Predict09.eu survey suggested the assembly would be more fragmented than now, with smaller parties taking more seats, but it indicated there would be no threat to mainstream parties as they work on major laws such as shaking up financial regulation.
I think it's a good thing so I want to make it happen and if this helps, yes, I vote, Dutch student Wieske van der Heyden said of the parliament, one of the three main EU institutions along with the Commission and the Council of EU leaders.
Another Dutchman, Cor Hofman, said he was voting but added: Separate states must have ... their own parliaments so Europe shouldn't be too strong.
GOVERNMENTS UNDER PRESSURE
Although a defeat in this election cannot directly force out national governments, it could increase pressure for change.
Many voters are alarmed by high unemployment -- 9.2 percent in the 16 countries sharing the euro currency -- and joint European efforts to tackle joblessness have had limited success. Some EU leaders fear rising poverty could trigger social crisis.
For British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who also faced local elections Thursday, the election is a test of his leadership. A bad performance by Labor would increase pressure on him to quit following a scandal over parliamentary expenses.
German leaders were watching the mood before a national election in September and French President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling conservatives could lose votes to the far-right.
In Ireland, the governing Fianna Fail party was expected to suffer a setback but it was not clear how well the Libertas party which opposes the EU's Lisbon reform treaty would fare.
The treaty, on which Ireland holds a referendum in the autumn, is intended to streamline decision-making in the EU and would give the parliament more powers in setting legislation.
The new parliament's tasks will include helping shape -- and pass -- laws on anything from the environment to supervision of Europe's financial system to try to avert another credit crunch.
It will also have the final say in appointing the next president of the European Commission -- a powerful regulatory body -- and its endorsement is also required for the entire Commission to take office.