Voters across the European Union cast their ballots on the final day of elections for the bloc's parliament

Brussels (Belgium) (AFP) - Voters across Europe cast their ballots Sunday on the final – and biggest – day of elections for the EU’s parliament, with far-right parties expected to make gains at a pivotal time for the bloc.

Polling stations opened in 21 member countries, including heavy hitters France and Germany, for the vote that helps shape the European Union’s direction over the next five years.

“These elections are crucial because the European Parliament must start to play its rightful role,” Kostas Karagiannis told AFP as he emerged from a polling station in Athens.

The vote comes as the continent is confronted with Russia’s war in Ukraine, global trade and industrial tensions marked by US-China rivalry, a climate emergency and a West that within months may have to adapt to a new Donald Trump presidency.

More than 360 million people were eligible to vote across the EU’s 27 nations in the elections that started Thursday – although only a fraction are expected to cast their ballots.

The outcome will determine the makeup of the EU’s next parliament that helps decide who runs the powerful European Commission, with German conservative Ursula von der Leyen vying for a second term in charge.

While centrist mainstream parties are predicted to hold most of the incoming European Parliament’s 720 seats, polls suggest they will be weakened by a stronger far right pushing the bloc towards ultraconservatism.

Preliminary results are expected Sunday evening.

Members of the European Union

Many European voters, hammered by a high cost of living and fearing immigrants to be the source of social ills, are increasingly persuaded by populist messaging.

Hungarian voter Ferenc Hamori, 54, said he wanted to see the EU led more by politicians like his country’s right-wing premier Viktor Orban – even though he expected him to remain “outnumbered in Brussels”.

In countries close to Russia, the spectre of the threat from Moscow was a major motivation.

“I would like to see greater security,” doctor Andrzej Zmiejewski, 51, said after voting in Poland’s capital Warsaw.

- Battleground France -

France will be the EU’s high-profile battleground for the competing ideologies.

With voting intentions above 30 percent, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (RN) is predicted to handily beat President Emmanuel Macron’s liberal Renaissance party, polling at 14-16 percent.

The EU vote takes place under the shadow of Russia's war on neighbouring Ukraine

In the French city of Lyon, 83-year-old Albert Coulaudon said Macron was getting “mixed up” in too many international issues such as the war in Ukraine.

“That scares me,” he told AFP.

In Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, the election could likewise deal a blow to Chancellor Olaf Scholz – whose centre-left SPD is polling behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Leading the polls are the centre-right Christian Democrats, credited with 30 percent of votes – but on 14 percent the AfD is either neck-and-neck or ahead of all three parties in the ruling coalition: SPD, Greens and the liberal FDP.

Far-right parties are expected to make gains at the EU-wide election

Le Pen, who has strived to shed the RN of its past reputation for anti-Semitism and xenophobia, has made overtures to Italy’s far-right premier Giorgia Meloni with an eye to teaming up.

But Meloni, while fiercely opposed to undocumented asylum-seekers entering Europe, has cultivated a pro-EU position and given little heed publicly to Le Pen’s offer.

- Von der Leyen’s ambition -

Unlike Le Pen, Meloni aligns with the overall EU consensus on maintaining military and financial assistance to Ukraine and encourages its ambition to one day join the bloc.

Meloni is also important to von der Leyen’s bid for a second mandate as European Commission chief, which will be decided by EU leaders but also needs majority assent in the new European Parliament.

Ursula von der Leyen, aiming for a second term leading the European Commission, has opened the door to working with pro-EU extreme-right lawmakers

Von der Leyen has opened the door to her European People’s Party (EPP) – projected to come top in the EU parliament but without a majority – working with Meloni’s far-right lawmakers.

Mainstream leftist parties fear that could trigger a sharp rightward turn – with tougher immigration rules and a watering down of climate policies.

It could also further bring the far right into the mainstream, as has happened in Italy and the Netherlands where they dominate governing coalitions.

- ‘Heads in the sand’ -

But there has been some backlash against the surge in populism and in Hungary Orban faced a challenge from former government insider Peter Magyar.

“I think the public sentiment has changed; people who have been burying their heads in the sand are now standing up and coming forward,” said voter Dorottya Wolf in Budapest.

Polling data compiled by Politico suggest the centre-right EPP will win 173 seats in the legislature, with the centre-left Socialists and Democrats on 143 and the centrist Renew Europe on 75.

The main far-right grouping, the European Conservatives and Reformists, in which Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party sits, was projected to win 76 seats.

The smaller Identity and Democracy grouping that includes Le Pen’s RN was predicted to get 67.