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A man leaves St. Matthews Parish Church in Hayfield, northern England, after casting his vote on May 22, 2014. / Andrew Yates, AFP/Getty Images

BERLIN - If recent polls are correct, European Union officials may not like the results of their push to get Europeans out to vote in parliamentary elections.

At least 20% of parliamentary seats up for grabs in elections that began Thursday - the first since 2009 when the continent was shaken by the sovereign debt crisis - could end up in the hands of fringe parties fiercely critical of the EU and its current policies. Their success could obstruct big initiatives - such as a German-led push for more financial integration, analysts say.

"It is going to be harder for the Parliament to continue to support current policies on dealing with the sovereign debt crisis or the attitude toward the single market," said Jonathan Hopkin, associate professor of comparative politics at the London School of Economics.

This year, 28 nations will elect 751 members to the EU Parliament, which passes EU-wide laws, oversees the lawmaking European Commission and manages the EU's $200 billion budget. The euro critics say they want to stop the economic integration of the 28-member bloc, because it has led to "disaster." Instead, they want a "well-planned exit" from the euro currency used in 18 of the EU countries.

Much of the fringe is anti-euro, with those on the left also strongly opposing austerity measures and those on the far right firmly against immigration, particularly France's National Front, which won 11 mayoral races in March and is now projected to win 23% of the vote in the EU election.

Meanwhile, polls in Italy show the anti-establishment 5 Stars Movement led by comedian Beppe Grillo winning 24.1% of the vote, according to Pollwatch, an independent pollster. In Austria, the right-wing populist Freedom Party is polling at 20.4% while in the Netherlands, the anti-Islam Party of Freedom led by Geert Wilders - who calls the EU a "monster" - is supported by 16.6%

Analysts say financial markets are closely watching the outcome of the elections.

"If in Italy Grillo receives a lots of votes, this could be a vote of no confidence - there could be a new uncertainty about the national government thereby postponing the reforms, again trying to do less austerity," said Carsten Brzeski, chief economist at Dutch financial group ING in Brussels.

Some worry the euro-skeptic parties will push for less austerity and create instability in the markets.

"The big question would then be if the Germans move (toward less austerity) or will they play hardball and that of course has the risk or the potential to lead to financial market uncertainties," Brzeski added.

Ironically, analysts say, it was the austerity measures prescribed for EU countries with high public debt burdens that provided the fertile ground for euro-skeptic movements in the first place.

"It is really easy, banal, and also false to associate the euro currency with the economic crisis," said Piero Ignazi, professor of political science of the University of Bologna in Italy. "Germany proved incapable of giving a quick and effective response at the early stages of the crisis in Greece, and this led to disaster ... to people thinking of Europe as a system which doesn't lead to prosperity and development but one that produces misery and crisis."

That sentiment is especially strong in Greece, which was hardest hit. Unemployment is at 27%,and one out of three Greeks remains below the poverty line.

"My husband's pension was cut by 50%," said Maria Papadopoulou on her weekly visit to the central meat market in Athens where she finds the lowest prices. "Of course I'll vote ?? I'll vote against those that brought us to this situation."

People like Papadopoulou pin their hopes on Syriza, the left-leaning party, which has promised to change austerity policies implemented over the past four years that include multiple tax hikes, budget cuts and privatizations of state assets.

It is likely low voter turnout across Europe - forecast below the 43% who turned out in the 2009 election - could help the fringe parties.

Still, disaffection and distrust among voters run high. Many respondents of a survey by Eurobarometer in March said they see the European economic situation as "totally bad," don't believe there will be a change in the situation in the next 12 months and "tend not to trust" the European Union.

The fringe is jumping in to capitalize on that.

"We want more Italy in Italy and more German sovereignty in Germany," said AFD candidate Bernd Lucke from Germany. "Countries should be responsible for their own economic policies."

Contributing: Marina Rigou in Athens



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

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