LONDON — Dutch and British voters on Thursday kicked off four days of elections across the European Union for the bloc's Parliament, a vote that pits supporters of close European integration against populist euroskeptics who want to severely restrict immigration and give more powers back to their national governments.
Polls opened first in the Netherlands and half an hour later in the United Kingdom — a nation still in political chaos over its plans to leave the bloc altogether.
They were the only nations among the EU's 28 members that held an election Thursday. Others will be voting through Sunday.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who bicycled to his voting station in a suburb of The Hague, backs a more united EU, saying he doesn't want his country to follow the UK out of the EU door.
"For our safety, for our jobs, for our prosperity, our stability, we need to stay a part of European Union," he said.
The elections, which end Sunday night, come as support is surging for populists and nationalists who want to rein in the EU's powers and strictly limit immigration. Meanwhile, Europe's traditional political powerhouses, both conservative and left-wing, insist that unity is the best buffer against the shifting economic and security challenges posed by an emerging new world order.
French President Emmanuel Macron says the challenge is "not to cede to a coalition of destruction and disintegration" that will seek to dismantle the EU unity that has been built up over the past six decades. Many EU leaders embrace the idea of further European integration as a way to bolster prosperity and influence.
In a significant challenge to those centrist forces, populists across several countries have united ahead of the elections. On Saturday, Italy's anti-migrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini was joined at a rally by 10 other nationalist leaders, including far-right leaders Marine Le Pen of France's National Rally party and Joerg Meuthen of the Alternative for Germany party.
The populists are seeking to join forces across national boundaries to give them a much stronger voice in the European Parliament and overthrow Europe's traditional political structure.
Voters across Europe are electing 751 lawmakers, although that number is set to drop to 705 when Britain leaves the EU. The U.K. has 73 European lawmakers, who would lose their jobs when their country completes its messy divorce from the EU.
Results of the four days of voting will not be officially released until Sunday night, but Dutch national broadcaster NOS will publish a Netherlands exit poll after ballot boxes close Thursday night.
On Thursday morning, British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn warned that "the far-right is on the rise," adding that "the actions we take now will have huge consequences for our future."
The British vote may have a direct impact on the future of embattled Prime Minister Theresa May, whose Conservative Party appears to be losing support amid a prolonged Brexit impasse. May has tried but failed for months to get lawmakers in the British Parliament to back her plan to leave the EU.
Both the Conservatives and Labour in Britain were predicted to be heading for an electoral pasting in Thursday's vote, due to the chaos over Britain's impending departure from the EU. Results of the vote will be announced Sunday night, and a poor showing for the Conservatives would increase the calls for May to step down as party leader, which would set in motion a leadership contest.
Britain's Brexit party, led by Nigel Farage, has appeared to gain strength in recent voter surveys. Farage voted Thursday, then declared he hopes to have the shortest possible tenure as a member of the European Parliament because he wants Britain to leave the EU as quickly as possible.
"If you want Brexit, you've got to vote Brexit," he said, warning lawmakers from Britain's two major parties — Conservatives and Labour — that they will be vanquished at Britain's next general election unless they respect voters' desire to leave the EU.
Voting in Britain was marred by the inability of hundreds of the 3 million EU citizens in Britain to vote despite having a legal right to do so. The Electoral Commission blamed the problem on the short notice that officials had to prepare for the election, which would not have been held in Britain if the country had left the EU in March as planned.
The Netherlands could provide a snapshot of what is to come. Polls show the right-wing populist Forum for Democracy led by charismatic intellectual Thierry Baudet running neck-and-neck with Rutte's center-right VVD party.
While the Netherlands, an affluent trading nation, profits from the EU's open borders and single market, it also is a major contributor to EU coffers.
Astrid van Foreest, 75, voted for Rutte's party, saying the Netherlands needs to be part of the EU.
"We are such a small country. We can't do without Europe," she said. "Europe has brought us a lot of riches — not for everybody. That is a point to be improved. We can't do it all on our own."
Baudet, whose party emerged as a surprise winner of provincial elections in March, identifies more with hard-line Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban than with the nationalist populist movement led by Itay's Salvini, although in a debate Wednesday night he called Salvini a "hero of Europe" for his crackdown on migration.
"The immigration we get here from Africa and the Mideast is completely contrary to our culture, our values, our way of life, tolerance, love of women and so on," Baudet said. "That has to stop and it will not happen at the European level."