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By Anders Melin
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - For decades, elections to the European Parliament have been dismissed as secondary affairs, with turnout declining at every ballot since direct polling began in 1979.
But frustration with how Europe's leaders have handled the economic crisis over the past three years, increased political engagement by young voters and the growing influence of the parliament itself could be about to change that.
The next election is still a year away, in May 2014. But already Europe's major political blocs are jockeying for position and staking out issues. And the latest research suggests the May 22-25 vote will be a hotly contested affair.
"Young people are angry and they want to have a voice," said Adam Nyman, director of Debating Europe, a project that channels questions from young voters directly to politicians in Brussels.
"I don't think they will shy away from the next election."
A survey released by the European Commission last week showed 65 percent of eligible voters below the age of 30 plan to vote next year, with a particular rise among first-time voters. That represents a sharp departure from the past.
Total voter turnout has declined at all seven elections since 1979, dropping to just 43 percent in 2009. Of that, youth turnout has been among the largest decliners, sliding to 29 percent in 2009 from around 33 percent in 2004.
The last three years of economic turmoil have been extremely tough for young people throughout Europe, but particularly those in the south - Greece, Spain, Cyprus, Italy and Portugal - which has suffered most during the crisis.
Youth unemployment in Greece and Spain now stands above 50 percent and sociologists are genuinely concerned about the risks of a "lost generation", with the possibility that some young people will never secure a job in their lifetime.
The frustration that generates has already been seen in demonstrations on the streets of Athens, Madrid and elsewhere - there have been days of riots on the streets of Sweden - but it may also be vented via the ballot box.
The current president of the European Parliament, German Socialist Martin Schulz, is well aware of that possibility, citing it as a potential threat to the region's stability.
"One of the biggest threats to the European Union is that people entirely lose their confidence in the capacity of the EU to solve their problems," he told Reuters in an interview in March. "And if the younger generation is losing trust, then in my eyes the European Union is in real danger."
James Tilly, a professor of political science at Oxford University, is not convinced youth anger will translate into higher voter turnout, pointing out that young Germans and Austrians have not gone through the same experience as Greeks.
But if the predicted doubling of youth votes does happen, it promises to send reverberations across the political landscape, much as it has done in Italy, where the Five Star Movement captured 60 percent of the youth vote in February, turning it into one of nation's most powerful forces overnight.
The question is whether young voters will give their support to the traditional blocs - the center-right EPP, the liberal ALDE group or the Socialists - or instead lean towards anti-EU parties such as Britain's UKIP or Finland's True Finns.
French newspaper Le Monde reported this week that anti-EU French parties were gearing themselves up for May's elections, and looking to build links in other countries too.
"The election will certainly be a stress test for the EU," said Asle Tojes, a professor of political science at the University of Oslo, who worries about a growing sense that Brussels policymakers are disconnected from people's problems.
If anti-EU parties do surge, they are most likely to steal votes from the socialists, liberals and conservatives, who together hold 70 percent of the parliament's 754 seats. That could alter which group ends up being the largest, which in turn may affect who becomes European Commission president - a powerful job with a direct role in shaping Europe's future.
Suddenly, elections that haven't much mattered for three decades are shaping up to have a real impact.
(Reporting By Anders Melin; editing by Luke Baker)