UK sceptics surge, Dutch stumble as EU votes

Nigel Farage’s UKIP grabs seats from Conservatives and Labour in UK local elections

Britain's anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) has made strong gains in local elections, taking seats from both Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives and the opposition Labour party, according to early results today. Video: Reuters


Britain’s Eurosceptic UK Independence Party made strong gains but their Dutch counterparts stumbled as more countries voted on Friday in European Parliament elections expected to produce a widespread anti-EU protest vote on a very low turnout.

Nigel Farage’s UKIP, which wants to pull Britain out of the European Union and severely restrict immigration, has weakened Labour’s grip on its northern heartlands and caused the Conservatives to lose control of at least eight flagship councils following yesterday’s local election vote in the UK, said the Guardian.

By 7am today, with more than 100 of the 172 councils up for election in England and Northern Ireland still to declare, the Tories had lost 102 seats, Labour had gained 94, the Liberal Democrats had lost 83, UKIP had gained 86, the Greens had gained one and other parties were up seven, reports the Guardian.

“Looking at the average vote shares across the country, and without wishing to count any chickens before they’re hatched, it looks pretty good,” an ebullient Nigel Farage said as evidence of his anti-establishment party’s surge trickled in.

The results of the European parliament elections, which also took place in the UK yesterday, will be announced on Sunday.

By contrast, far right Dutch populist Geert Wilders, whose anti-EU, anti-Islam Freedom Party had been forecast to top the poll in the Netherlands, was beaten into fourth place by pro-European parties in a surprise reverse following yesterday’s vote, according to exit polls.

His PVV was projected to get just 12.2 per cent, behind the centrist Democrats 66, the centre-right Christian Democrats and Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s right-wing liberals.

Wilders blamed the disappointing score on a low turnout of around 35 percent, saying that “by staying home (voters) showed their loathing for and disinterest in the European Union. The Netherlands has not become more pro-European.”

Voters in Ireland and the Czech Republic began casting their ballots on Friday but most of the EU’s 28 nations hold the election on Sunday. Some 388 million Europeans are eligible to vote for 751 members of the parliament, which is an equal co-legislator with member governments on most EU laws.

Opinion polls suggest anti-EU parties of the far right and hard left, which blame Brussels for austerity, recession and unemployment in the wake of the euro zone crisis, may win about 25 percent of seats, roughly double their current share.

But the parliament will remain dominated by pro-European centre-right, centre-left, liberal and Greens parties which often vote together in support of EU legislation.

In France, final polls put Marine Le Pen’s far right National Front, which wants to leave the euro and restore national border controls and trade barriers, neck-and-neck with the conservative opposition UMP party ahead of Sunday’s vote, with President Francois Hollande’s Socialists a distant third.

Other countries where Eurosceptics are expected to achieve big scores include Italy, where Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment 5-Star Movement is the main threat to Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s centre-left Democratic Party, as well as Austria and Denmark.

In Greece, the score of Alex Tsipras’ leftist anti-austerity Syriza party may determine whether conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ coalition of mainstream parties can cling to power and implement the rest of a deeply unpopular EU/IMF bailout programme.

Impact on Britain’s Cameron

In a possible first sign of UKIP’s impact, sources familiar with Mr Cameron’s thinking said the British leader would lobby fellow EU leaders against nominating either of the two leading candidates of the mainstream EU parties as president of the executive European Commission.

Europe’s main political families have agreed in principle that the candidate of whichever party tops the poll - either centre-right Jean-Claude Juncker or Socialist Martin Schulz - should be the nominee to succeed Jose Manuel Barroso.

The EU treaty says the European Council of EU leaders must propose a candidate “taking account” of the parliamentary election and after appropriate consultations.

The British sources said Mr Cameron, who has promised Britons an in/out referendum on EU membership in 2017 if he is re-elected next year, regarded both the veteran former Luxembourg prime minister and the German president of the outgoing European Parliament as too federalist.

“It’s really important the next commission president is reform-minded. He (Cameron) will be talking to EU leaders about other candidates,” one of the sources said.

Mr Juncker and Mr Schulz have both said EU leaders would be betraying the electorate if they pulled another candidate out of a hat in a backroom deal.

As so often in the EU, much will hinge on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the bloc’s most influential leader, who has backed Juncker in principle but also said it will take weeks of negotiation before a candidate emerges.

Merkel was due to take part in a joint election rally later on Friday with Juncker and David McAllister, the leading candidate of her Christian Democrats, on the market square at Saarlouis, a small town close to the French border.

German officials decline to discuss names but say they expect a package deal with several other EU jobs including the presidents of the European Council and the European Parliament, and the EU’s foreign policy chief.

Although Britain has no veto over the Commission president, if neither main party has a big lead and turnout falls again despite efforts to personalise the election, seasoned Brussels diplomats say EU leaders are unlikely to force the matter to a vote and humiliate Cameron.


Additional reporting from the Guardian