Europeans headed to the polls in their tens of millions Sunday to choose their champions in a looming battle between the nationalist right and pro-EU forces to chart a course for the union.
Early turnout in many countries was higher than it had been five years ago, but it was not immediately clear if this was good news for the populists or for those mobilizing to oppose them.
“I guess that some marginal parties will be less marginal tonight,” the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker said as he cast his vote in Luxembourg.
Seven EU member states have already voted, but no official results can be published until the rest have taken part.
The European Parliament will give a voting estimate at 1815 GMT and provisional results will begin to emerge from 2100 GMT.
Eurosceptic parties opposed to the project of ever closer union hope to capture as many as a third of the seats in the 751-member assembly, disrupting the pro-integration consensus.
The far-right parties of Italian deputy PM Matteo Salvini and France’s Marine Le Pen will lead this charge, and anti-EU ranks will be swelled by the Brexit Party of British populist Nigel Farage.
The president of the European Council, which represents EU national leaders, Donald Tusk said the main priority after the vote is to “save the EU as a project.”
France’s President Emmanuel Macron has taken it upon himself to act as figurehead for the centrist and liberal parties hoping to shut the nationalists out of key EU jobs and decision-making.
“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 told a rally on Friday.
It was not clear at midday which side was carrying the day, but the battle seems to have motivated French voters. Turnout was over 43% at 5 p.m. (1500GMT), compared with 35% at the same time in 2014. Polls remain open until 8 p.m. in the country’s big cities.
Several French poll institutes estimate that the final turnout may be over 50% at the end of the day, which would be a first in the country since 1994.
Turnout was also markedly higher in Germany, Spain, Poland, Hungary and Romania, but comparable to 2104 levels in Italy.
In the whole European Union, turnout for this pan-European vote has trended downward since the first election in 1979. Turnout stood at less than 43% in the 2014 vote.
Support for Germany’s Greens surges as coalition parties slump
Germany’s Greens saw a surge in support as the ruling coalition parties suffered heavy losses in the EU elections, according to projections by public broadcasters ARD and ZDF.
The Greens came in second place for the first time in a nationwide poll with between 20.5% and 22%, behind Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc on 27.5-28%. Merkel’s junior coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), managed only 15.5%.
The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) garnered 10.5% of the vote, while the liberal Free Democrats and hard-left Die Linke (The Left) party both achieved 5.5%.
The SPD were also just behind Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) in Bremen state elections, according to the ARD/ZDF projections, meaning the center-left party could lose control of the northern city-state for the first time since the end of World War II.
Forecasts show Austria’s center-right on top
The far-right People’s Party (OeVP) of Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is on course for gains in the European parliament elections, with the far-right Freedom Party coming third, according to a media forecast published as polls closed in Austria on Sunday.
It gave the OeVP 34.5% of the vote, up more than seven points on the last such vote in 2014, while the FPOe was in third place, falling from 19.7% to 17.5%.
The predictions are based on surveys carried out by a group of Austrian polling institutes since Tuesday, including as Austrians went to the polls on Sunday.
However, pollsters cautioned that predicting results has been made more difficult by the fact that the vote comes only days after the so-called “Ibiza-gate” corruption scandal engulfed the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), leading Kurz to dissolve his coalition with the FPOe and call early national elections for the autumn.
Conservative opposition projected to win in Greece
In Greece, the conservative opposition New Democracy party is projected to win the European election, according to an exit poll jointly conducted by five Greek polling firms.
New Democracy is projected to win 32% to 36% of the vote, compared to 25% to 29% for the ruling left-wing Syriza.
The socialist Movement for Change is projected to win 7% to 9%, while the extreme right Golden Dawn and the Communist party are expected to get between 5% and 7% each.
Two more parties, far-right nationalist Greek Solution and Diem25, the Greek section of former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’ European movement, have a chance to exceed the 3% threshold required for sending a representative to the European Parliament.
The poll, with 7,000 respondents, was conducted until 5 p.m. (1400 GMT), two hours before voting ended, and will be updated.
‘Extremists are mobilizing’
Meanwhile, the mainstream parties are vying between themselves for influence over the choice of a new generation of top European officials, including the powerful president of the European Commission.
And Brussels insiders are closely following the turnout figures, fearing that another drop in participation will undermine the credibility of the EU parliament as it seeks to establish its authority.
Britain and the Netherlands were first to vote, on Thursday, followed by Ireland and the Czech Republic on Friday and Slovakia, Malta and Latvia on Saturday, leaving the bulk of the 400 million eligible voters to join in on Sunday.
At the last EU election in 2014, Slovakia had the lowest turnout of any country, at less than 14 percent, and centrist president Andrej Kiska is worried that the far-right is poised to profit.
“We see that extremists are mobilizing, we see a lot their billboards and activities all over Slovakia. We can’t let someone steal Europe from us. It’s our Europe,” Kiska told reporters.
But the right and the far-right have not had everything their own way so far.
In the Netherlands, the center-left party of EU vice president Frans Timmermans won the most votes and added two seats to the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) bloc in parliament, according to exit polls.
A day later, the S&D’s center-right rival the European People’s Party (EPP) was buoyed by exit polls suggesting that Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s pro-EU Fine Gael party was in the lead in Ireland.
If Britain leaves the European Union on October 31, the latest deadline for Brexit, then its MEPs will not sit for long in the EU parliament but could still play a role in the scramble to hand out top jobs.
Thursday’s votes from Britain won’t be counted until after polls close in Italy, but Farage’s Brexit Party appears on course to send a large delegation to a parliament its wants to abolish.
Macron is pinning his hopes on his Renaissance movement joining with the liberal ALDE voting bloc and other centrist groups to give impetus to his plans for deeper EU integration.
But much will depend on who gets the top jobs: the presidencies of the Council and the Commission, the speaker of parliament, the high representative for foreign policy and director of the European Central Bank.
The 29 EU leaders have been invited to a summit dinner on Tuesday to decide how to choose the nominees, and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to back the lead EPP candidate Manfred Weber for the Commission.
Macron and some other leaders oppose both Weber, a German conservative MEP with no executive experience, and the idea that the parliament should get to choose one of its own for Brussels’ prime post.
But whichever way the leaders’ council leans, there will be no immediate decision. Instead, Council president Donald Tusk will take note of how the debate went and draft the nominations before a June 21 EU summit.