GERMANY - JUNE 01: Europe flag. (Photo by Ulrich Baumgarten via Getty Images)
The European Union explained
02:38 - Source: CNN
London CNN  — 

Citizens from 28 countries will cast their votes in European parliamentary elections this week in what many politicians say could be one of the bloc’s most pivotal moments.

The election will determine the future direction of the European Union itself as it confronts the threat of nationalists and populists across the continent, and as the drawn-out Brexit process continues to dominate the political agenda.

Around 350 million people across the EU are eligible to cast ballots for the 751 members of the European Parliament (MEPs), who pass hundreds of laws each year – from how many hours employees work, to the quality of air that citizens breathe, and even data privacy.

While historically turnout has been relatively low, this year analysts say voters are much more engaged with the poll, which runs from May 23 to 26. As a result, Europe’s Parliament is expected to undergo a major shake-up.

Members of the European Parliament take part in a session in Strasbourg in 2018.

Populists expected to make big gains

Parliament’s largest groups, the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) – who have long enjoyed a joint majority in Parliament – are expected to lose a number of seats with euroskeptic and populist movements tipped to make big gains this year.

Senior research fellow Camino Mortera-Martinez from the Center for European Reform (CER) argues that while those ascendant political groups may not dominate Parliament, their presence will be felt as they apply pressure and complicate EU decision-making.

“Euroskeptics and populists are going to grow exponentially this time,” she says. “You’re going to have a much more divided Parliament. It’s going to be more difficult to find compromises.”

Mortera-Martinez says there was always going to be a surge in populist parties following the migration crisis, eurozone woes and various terrorist attacks across the continent.

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In April Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini – who has spearheaded a series of anti-immigrant policies – launched what amounted to a “Make Europe Great Again” campaign in an attempt to unite far-right political parties across the continent ahead of the elections. The newly formed alliance hopes to form a weighty bloc in Parliament – the third largest, Marine Le Pen of France’s National Rally has predicted.

According to Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the UK-based University of Kent, many European populists believe they will be able to influence Europe from the inside out.

Goodwin previously told CNN that populists will be a “disruptive political force” and will most likely push “for the return of powers to nation states, stronger border security, more help with dealing with refugees and probably more democratic and transparent institutions.”

However, Mortera-Martinez suggests that populists, nationalist and euroskeptic parties will ultimately struggle to work together “so their influence will diminish a lot because of the lack of coordination.”

In a fragmented Parliament, Europe’s Greens – on course for their best-ever showing – could find themselves wielding more power. With support for mainstream parties declining, the votes of their projected 57 or more MEPs may well be key to any moderate, pro-EU alliance.