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Pro-EU forces hail Dutch election breakthrough

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Dublin (AFP)

Populist forces stumbled in the face of surprisingly tough resistance from Dutch pro-EU parties, as Irish and Czechs voters cast their ballots Friday in European elections.

A possible anti-establishment wave has dominated coverage of the four-day contest, but a Dutch exit poll late Thursday suggested parties committed to the EU are headed for a surprise win there.

More than 400 million people are eligible to elect 751 MEPs continent-wide, with the first official results to be announced late Sunday once voting in all 28 member states has been completed.

The Netherlands and Britain, where Prime Minister Theresa May finally announced her departure Friday following a months-long Brexit crisis, kicked off voting on Thursday, and Italy will be the last country to close polls late on Sunday.

"To all our friends across Europe still campaigning, this one is for you too!" said Dutchman Frans Timmermans, the lead socialist candidate and one of the main pretenders to replace European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker.

"Keep going! Keep believing! We can do this!," he said on Twitter after his party's apparent victory.

Turnout will remain a major concern in the EU vote that has sparked little enthusiasm since its first edition in 1979, with eastern Europeans historically the least motivated to go to the polls.

Authorities are also concerned by disinformation campaigns on social media by outside actors -- notably Russia -- trying to influence the outcome.

Activists say Facebook has closed news pages and scrapped accounts in its effort fight back fake news and avoid the embarrasing scandals that followed the US election of Donald Trump in 2016.

Around the continent, pro-European leaders are seizing on the surprise in the Netherlands to mobilise their supporters to resist a populist gain, with opinion polls indicating nationalist parties lead in France, Italy and Hungary, among others.

Brussels fears a good showing for the eurosceptics will disrupt decision-making in the EU and threaten reform efforts, including on trade, migration and the economy.

- 'It's been disgraceful' -

Such concerns were reflected among Irish voters.

"The rise of anti-Europeanism, and the right is quite frightening in some parts of Europe, so I am voting to support Europe," said Fiona Corbett outside a Dublin polling station.

"I think that being part of Europe has been mutually beneficial."

Dublin voter Joseph O'Brien told AFP: "Europe is facing a lot of issues today."

In the Czech Republic, the party of billionaire Prime Minister Andrej Babis was set to win amid expected low turnout and despite protests against his cabinet.

A poll showed Babis's ANO (YES) party, running under the campaign slogan of "Strong Czechia, may get over 25 percent in a country where euroscepticsm runs high.

The EU "should stop telling us what we should do, that's the only thing that interests me," an elderly bespectacled woman voting ANO in the southern city of Pelhrimov told AFP.

Elsewhere in Europe, other eurosceptic forces are hoping for a strong showing.

Matteo Salvini of Italy's anti-immigrant League and Marine Le Pen of France's far-right National Rally (RN) want their Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group to become the third largest in Brussels. The League has topped opinion polls in Italy.

Le Pen wants to strike a blow to Emmanuel Macron's faltering French presidency by overtaking his centrist, pro-European party Republic on the Move (LREM).

Polls give her RN party a slight edge, with around 23 percent support.

The Brexit Party, which was only set up this year by veteran eurosceptic MEP Nigel Farage, is expected to score a resounding victory in the UK vote.

Britain was never meant to take part in the elections but May was forced to trigger the vote after delaying the planned Brexit date of March 29 after parliament refused to approve the divorce deal.

- 'Destruction' -

The strong showing by eurosceptics is not expected to sweep the whole bloc, with voters from Spain to the former Soviet Baltic states indicating solid backing for the EU.

In Germany, surveys put Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU party -- a heavyweight in the EU-wide centre-right EPP group -- in first place, with the Greens second.

But a rant by star YouTuber Rezo against Merkel went viral, urging the "destruction" of the CDU for making policies for the rich while failing to act on global warming.

Mainstream parties across Europe have clung on to climate change as a rallying cry -- spurred in part by a wave of student strikes across the continent.

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