Sceptics set to fight EU from the inside after vote

Two weeks ahead of European Parliament elections, polls are predicting a eurosceptic surge, packing the assembly with members set to fight the EU from within for the next five years.

Current surveys show anti-EU parties picking up anywhere from 100 to 200 seats in the 751-member parliament when the continent's 400 million voters go to the ballot box May 22-25.

Sceptics and far-right parties are set for major gains in the likes of heavyweight European Union nations Britain and France, as well as in the Netherlands.

In Germany, the AfD party aiming to abolish the euro, is rating well while Beppe Grillo's populists and the radical left Syriza are front-runners respectively in Italy and Greece.

"The Eurosceptic surge could be more dangerous than the emergence of the Tea Party in the US," said Mark Leonard of the European Council on Foreign Relations. "It could lead to the strange spectacle of a 'self-hating parliament' that ultimately wants to secure its own abolition."

Latest forecasts tip Nigel Farage's UK Independence Party (UKIP) to pick up a third of Britain's 73 EU seats, and Marine Le Pen's National Front to grab a sizeable portion of France's 74.

Anti-EU parties are also likely to do well in the Czech Republic, Denmark, Austria, Lithuania, Hungary and Finland. Seats are allocated according to population with the eight largest nations accounting for two-thirds of the MEPs.

Abstention meanwhile is forecast to hit a fresh record even though turnout was already at a disappointing low of 43 percent in the last 2009 parliamentary vote.

Paradoxically, low interest in this eighth election in the history of the parliament -- the world's only democratically-elected international institution -- comes as both the assembly and the executive European Commission that runs daily affairs in Brussels, win ever-increasing power over national governments.

But little over a year after enthusiastically picking up its Nobel Peace prize, and as Ukrainians defy mighty Russia with their bid to join the EU, the 28-nation bloc is caught in the worst economic and political crisis of its 60-year history.

With unemployment on the rise, hitting more than half of young people in some countries, the divide has grown between wealthy northern nations and southern have-nots as populists point a finger of blame at immigration and the euro.

"There's been no satisfactory response to globalisation," said Jean-Dominique Giuliani, head of the Robert Schuman Foundation. "When there's no political explanation of what's happening in the world it becomes difficult to explain the relevance of Europe."

The election "may just be the beginning of an ongoing voter rebellion in the heart of EU decision-making," said Martijn Lampart of the Dutch Motivaction research institute.

- Far-right divisions -

The far-right and eurosceptic parties are divided, however, with Farage, Finland's far-right Finns or the Danish People's Party, refusing to put together a parliamentary group with Le Pen on the grounds that the party remains racially prejudiced and anti-Semitic.

Le Pen rejects any such charge and plans to launch an anti-EU group with Geert Wilders, controversial leader of the anti-immigrant anti-Islam PVV Dutch Freedom Party, which would open up the possibility of up to three million euros in yearly EU subsidies.

But the French rightist on no account will do business with Hungary's Jobbik or Greece's neo-Nazi Golden Dawn.

"There will be a collection, a rainbow of different kinds of eurosceptics in the next parliament. Will it be enough to form a blocking minority? I don't know. I doubt it," Farage told AFP.

"But it will certainly be a livelier, more interesting European Parliament," he added.

A majority of seats will go to the conservative European People's Party (EPP) and Socialists (S&D group) -- over 400 -- with the centre-right ALDE liberals in third place, polls show.

So the new president of the European Commission, officially named in the summer, is likely to be from one of those groups under new EU rules stating that governments must take into account the results of the May vote when appointing the Commission boss.

Unlike national legislatures, the parliament cannot initiate laws, which is reserved to the Commission. It must approve legislation, however, and has the final say on agreeing the 28-member Commission and its president.