The Hague (AFP) - Dutch pro-EU parties headed for a surprise win Thursday in European Parliament elections, defying a predicted surge for populist forces as voters in Brexit-bound Britain and the Netherlands kicked off 28-nation polls.
With British Prime Minister Theresa May looking set to resign after postponing her forlorn bid to push her divorce deal through parliament, Eurosceptics across the continent had hoped for major gains in the four-day EU-wide elections.
But the populist momentum took an early hit with one of the main pretenders to the throne of European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, Dutchman Frans Timmermans, leading his social democrats to lead a Dutch exit poll released late Thursday.
Campaigning on a fiercely pro-Europe platform, Commission Vice-President Timmermans's party was set to beat the party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte and an upstart populist group, the exit poll said.
"There is clearly a majority in the Netherlands that wants the European Union to continue to play a role," Timmermans told the NOS public broadcaster.
"I realise that everywhere in Europe there is a need for another Europe, one that fights harder against climate change, that we have to cooperate on a social level, and where big business has to pay more taxes."
His social democrats were projected to win five seats out of the 26 allocated for the Netherlands, the Ipsos poll for NOS said.
Rutte's Liberals and the pro-Europe Christian Democrats were set to win four seats, while the right-wing Forum for Democracy of climate-sceptic populist leader Thierry Baudet was projected to win three seats, the same as the Groenlinks environmental party.
The anti-Islam Freedom Party of Geert Wilders, which has lost votes to Baudet, was meanwhile set to slump to one seat, from its current three.
Opinion polls in the run-up to the vote predicted Rutte and Baudet's parties would share the lead.
- 'We've been let down' -
More than 400 million European voters are eligible to elect 751 European Parliament members, with the first results expected late Sunday once voting in the 28 member states is over.
In Britain the elections were a surreal spectacle in a country that was supposed to have already left the European Union on March 29 after voting for Brexit in a referendum almost three years ago.
The Brexit crisis mirrored deep divisions across the continent, where rising nativist, anti-establishment forces are bidding to make significant gains in the elections.
MPs have rejected May's withdrawal agreement and the country now finds itself electing lawmakers to an institution it plans to leave.
"We've been let down by both of the main parties," Rex Taylor, a 79-year-old retired professor, said as he voted in the Scottish city of Glasgow.
The newly-created Brexit Party, formed only this year by Eurosceptic figurehead Nigel Farage, is leading the latest opinion polls with 37 percent of the vote.
However, the pro-EU Liberal Democrats also look set to capitalise on the mixed Brexit messages of the main parties.
Some EU citizens reported being turned away at British polling booths, with many complaining they were the victims of clerical errors in the last-minute scramble to organise the vote.
"I've been turned away from the polling station saying I'm not eligible to vote despite the fact I've got a polling card and have registered too. My local council... failed to send out the declaration," EU citizen Peter Baier wrote on Twitter.
- Risk to integration -
Around the continent, national leaders are scrambling to mobilise supporters to resist the populist surge, with opinion polls showing nationalist parties leading in France, Italy and Hungary, among others.
Pro-European leaders fear a good showing for the Eurosceptics will disrupt Brussels decision-making, threatening reform efforts at closer integration.
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.
Polls give her RN party a slight edge, with around 23 percent support.
"Everything has changed," Le Pen told AFP.
"A whole range of political forces have risen up in spectacular fashion."
- Centre-right set to win -
However, Eurosceptics are not expected to sweep the whole bloc, with voters from Spain to Ireland and the former Soviet Baltic states indicating solid backing for the EU.
In Germany, surveys show Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU party -- a heavyweight in the EU-wide centre-right EPP group -- in first place, with the Greens second.
The latest Eurobarometer survey commissioned by the European Parliament found 61 percent of respondents calling their country's EU membership a good thing -- the highest level since the early 1990s.
The polls will open on Friday in the Czech Republic and Ireland, and on Saturday in Latvia, Malta and Slovakia.
But most countries will be voting on Sunday, with the results expected overnight into Monday.
Juncker is stepping down after five years as president of the European Commission.
The hunt will also be on for someone to replace former Polish premier Donald Tusk as head of the EU council.