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British, Dutch Kick Off European Elections

The Dutch far-right Party for Freedom leader, Geert Wilders, casts his vote in the The Hague on June 4.
BRUSSELS (Reuters) -- Britain and the Netherlands have voted in a European Parliament election that is expected to punish governments that have struggled to cope with the global economic crisis.

More than 375 million people are eligible to take part in four days of voting that ends on June 7, when the majority of the 27 European Union's member states vote.

Opinion polls pointed to a low turnout and voter apathy, even though the 736-member assembly will have important powers to shape pan-European laws, and predicted gains for extremists at the expense of ruling parties such as Britain's Labour Party.

"I ask all EU citizens: Raise your voice and cast your vote," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in a statement issued at EU headquarters in Brussels.

He hoped to a high turnout would work against right-wing candidates such as Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Freedom Party (PVV) which is campaigning on an anti-EU platform.

Wilders said voters who are concerned about immigration should back him and criticized Turkey's bid to join the EU.

"Should Turkey as an Islamic country be able to join the European Union? We are the only party in Holland that says, it is an Islamic country, so no, not in 10 years, not in a million years," he said.

A new opinion poll showed the center-right European People's Party was likely to remain the largest group in parliament with 262 seats -- just over one third of places. It put the Socialist group in second place on 194 seats, or just over one quarter.

The survey suggested the assembly would be more fragmented than now, with smaller parties taking more seats, but it indicated this would be no threat to mainstream parties as they work on major laws such as shaking up financial regulation.

"Cooperation is always important because if different countries really work together you'll get a better economy and better priorities," said Marleen Wagner, a 23-year-old student.

First results were expected after late on June 7, once all member states have finished voting.

The parliament is one of the three main EU institutions, with the executive Commission and the Council of EU leaders.

It passes and shapes many EU laws, is a democratic watchdog over the other institutions and passes the EU budget. Its power will increase under planned reforms.

Although a defeat in this election cannot directly force out national governments, it could increase pressure for change.