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Europe's elections: Protest parties will rise, but 'big soft' center will rule

By Jim Boulden, CNN
May 21, 2014 -- Updated 1217 GMT (2017 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The European elections begins Thursday, and 400 million voters are eligible to vote across 28 EU member states
  • The protest parties have been rising in popularity, but they are unlikely to have influence, as Jim Boulden writes
  • They are more likely to push the middle parties together -- creating a more moderate centrist bloc

Editor's note: Jim Boulden is a correspondent for CNN's international programming based in London, where he covers a wide range of business and news stories. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- You might have been forgiven for not knowing there is an election around Europe, starting on Thursday, to elect 751 members of the European Parliament, known as MEPs.

You are not forgiven.

There are 751 seats from 28 countries up for grabs. Nearly 400 million Europeans are eligible to vote. Extreme parties on the left, and more noticeable, on the right, are expected to poll very well. It seems the angry are most likely to make the effort to vote, from Dublin to Athens.

The European Parliament gained more power in the Lisbon Treaty. It certainly does not have the legislative power of a national parliament, but it has the power to pressure Brussels.

Jim Boulden
Jim Boulden

In theory it even has the power to "elect" the next European Commission president (though heads of state/government can also ignore who parliament chooses. Isn't Europe fun?).

During the last vote, in 2009, the United Kingdom Independence Party came in second to the now ruling Conservative Party -- both parties are full of euroskeptics -- and UKIP became a force in British politics.

Rightist parties want to cut EU budgets, cut its influence, or simply cut it all up and throw it away
Jim Boulden

If you believe polls, UKIP could come in first in Thursday's vote.

The difference this time around is that the party has been under heavy scrutiny about his anti-immigration stance, about its controversial leader Nigel Farage and about its desire for the UK to actually pull out of the EU -- which of course would put its MEPs out of work. That's because UKIP does not have one single seat in Westminster, the UK's national parliament.

But UKIP is tapping into a feeling that is also benefiting parties on the extreme left -- that Brussels has lost its way.

EU Elections: The rise of protest parties

While rightist parties want to cut EU budgets, cut its influence, or simply cut it all up and throw it away, those on the left have been pushing hard to end the austerity drive driven by Brussels. They want to see spending to cut Europe's biggest disease: unemployment.

EU debt crisis will impact elections

Both extremes are benefiting from drag on Europe following the economic crisis which was followed by the Great Recession. Europeans are sick of it all and have every right to express their displeasure through the ballot box.

So, will it make a difference? Yes, but maybe not in obvious ways.

The bigger the vote for the extremes, the more likely the middle parties will have to work together to form a voting bloc. Giles Moec of Deutsche Bank calls it the "big soft" center.

The second influence by the fringe parties will be how far they push national governments to the left or the right, depending. Some ruling parties have already embraced their left party's call to end austerity and spend their way back to health. Other ruling parties have talked about cracking down on immigrants and other bogeymen, real or imagined.

Both extremes are benefiting from drag on Europe following the economic crisis
Jim Boulden

So, the rise of the fringe can influence Europe for the next five years simply by being who they are and making their voice at every turn, even if they can't really vote as a bloc.

You see, if there is one thing the fringe have in common in Europe, they are far from united. Every time one of them sticks their foot into it, the others have to at least pretend to be aghast and to pull away.

The more seats the rightest parties gain from next week, the more likely the battle between Marine Le Pen of the France's National Front and Farage of UKIP for dominance will split the base. No unity from the right is expected.

Now, if I am wrong and the right can form a useable bloc to block Brussels at every turn, then the European elections will prove to have been more important than most people could ever imagine.

READ MORE: Protest parties shake up election

READ MORE: How the European election works

READ MORE: Europe needs a new vision

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