Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte leaves on his bike after voting in the European elections in The Hague, Netherlands, Thursday, May 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Phil Nijhuis)

Reckoning: Dutch and UK voters start 4-day Europe election

May 23, 2019 - 10:38 am

LONDON (AP) — Dutch and British voters were the first to have their say Thursday in elections for the European Parliament, starting four days of voting across the 28-nation bloc that pits supporters of deeper integration against populist euroskeptics who want more power for their national governments.

Polls opened first in the Netherlands, and half an hour later the election began across the United Kingdom — the only other country voting Thursday, and a nation still wrestling with its plans to leave the European Union altogether.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he doesn't want his country to follow the U.K. out of the EU door.

"For our safety, for our jobs, for our prosperity, our stability we need to stay a part of European Union," he said after riding his bicycle to his former school in a leafy Hague suburb to cast his vote.

The elections, which end Sunday night, come as support is surging for populists and nationalists who want to rein in the EU's powers and limit immigration. Meanwhile, traditional powerhouses like France and Germany insist that unity is the best buffer against the shifting economic and security challenges posed by an emerging new world order.

French President Emmanuel Macron says the challenge is "not to cede to a coalition of destruction and disintegration" that will seek to dismantle EU unity built up over the past six decades. Many EU leaders embrace the idea of further European integration as a way to bolster prosperity and influence.

In a significant challenge to those centrist forces, populists across several countries appear largely united heading into the elections. On Saturday, Italy's anti-migrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini was joined at a rally by 10 other nationalist leaders, including far-right leaders Marine Le Pen of France's National Rally party and Joerg Meuthen of the Alternative for Germany party.

They raised the specter of populists joining forces across national boundaries to give them a much stronger voice in the European Parliament.

On Thursday morning, British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn warned that "the far-right is on the rise," adding that "the actions we take now will have huge consequences for our future."

The British vote may have a direct impact on the future of embattled Prime Minister Theresa May, whose Conservative Party appears to be losing support amid a prolonged Brexit impasse. May has tried but failed for months to get Parliament to back her plan to leave the EU.

A poor showing for her party in the results set to be announced Sunday night would likely increase the already mounting calls for her to step down as party leader, which would set in motion a leadership contest.

Voters across Europe elect a total of 751 lawmakers, although that number is set to drop to 705 when Britain leaves the EU. The UK has 73 European lawmakers, who would lose their jobs when their country completes its messy divorce from the EU.

Results of the four days of voting will not be officially released until Sunday night, but Dutch national broadcaster NOS will publish a Netherlands exit poll after ballot boxes close Thursday night.

The Netherlands could provide a snapshot of what is to come. Polls show the right-wing populist Forum for Democracy led by charismatic intellectual Thierry Baudet running neck-and-neck with Rutte's center-right VVD party.

While the country, an affluent trading nation, profits from the EU's open borders and single market, it also is a major contributor to EU coffers. In an early sign of discontent, skeptical Dutch voters in 2005 rejected a proposed EU constitution in a referendum.

Astrid van Foreest, 75, voted for Rutte's party, saying the Netherlands needs to be part of the EU.

"We are such a small country. We can't do without Europe," she said. "Europe has brought us a lot of riches — not for everybody; that is a point to be improved. We can't do it all on our own."

Baudet, whose party emerged as a surprise winner of provincial elections in March, identifies more with hard-line Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban than with the nationalist populist movement led by Salvini, although in a debate Wednesday night he called Salvini a "hero of Europe" for his crackdown on migration.

"The immigration we get here from Africa and the Mideast is completely contrary to our culture, our values, our way of life, tolerance, love of women and so on," Baudet said. "That has to stop and it will not happen at the European level."

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Katz reported from London.

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