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Brussels: Protest parties racked up gains across the 28-nation European Union (EU) in elections to the bloc’s Parliament, turning the assembly designed to unite Europe into an echo chamber for politicians who want to tear it apart.

The wave hit hardest in France, Greece and the UK, undermining the leaders of those countries and making it more difficult to steer the EU as a whole. In all, protest parties won 30% of the Europe-wide vote, up from 20% in the current Parliament, according to official EU projections.

Political forces suspicious of the US made inroads across the continent, threatening to snag trans-Atlantic trade talks the EU hopes will spur an economy struggling with the after- effects of the euro debt crisis. The UK Independence Party (UKIP), which wants to yank Britain out of the EU, won the election in Britain, beating Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives into third place.

The protest vote “will have a huge impact on the parties and policies back home," said Pieter Cleppe, head of the Brussels office of UK-based think tank Open Europe. “They will make it harder to centralize powers in the EU, especially when it comes to managing the euro crisis."

In France, the National Front under Marine Le Pen has complained of too many immigrants and a lenient penal system, while in Greece, the Syriza party of Alexis Tsipras campaigned against fiscal austerity policies that have hit the economy.

Cameron third

With most of the seats declared in Britain, Nigel Farage’s UKIP had 27.5% of the vote, the main opposition Labour Party 25%, the Conservatives 24%, the Greens 8 % and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats 7%.

United mainly by opposition to European unity, the protest movements show no signs of agreeing on a policy programme. Instead, their aim was to make life harder for people who weren’t on the ballot: leaders of national governments.

European Central Bank president Mario Draghi said the election showed that voters were looking for answers to the thorny questions of economic growth and employment.

‘Volcanic eruption’

France’s National Front, which has just three out of 577 lawmakers in the national Parliament, picked up 25%, estimates by TNS Sofres, Ipsos and Ifop showed. The breakthrough dealt a further blow to President Francois Hollande, the least popular leader in France’s modern history. Le Pen’s party has cashed in on discontent with an economy that has barely grown in two years.

Proclaiming “politics of the French, for the French, with the French," Le Pen said the election was a “humiliation" for Hollande. She called on him to dissolve the French Parliament and submit to new national elections—an appeal that was dismissed by Hollande’s camp.

Voters in Greece, the first debt-crisis victim, handed first place and six seats to Syriza, a party which chafed at the budget cuts demanded by German-led creditors in exchange for international financial aid. Preliminary results gave it 26.5%. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s New Democracy party, which has a two-seat majority in the national Parliament trailed, with 23.3%.

‘Rather wobbly’

“The government majority as a result of this election has taken a big blow and some people are already saying that it’s rather wobbly," said Marco Incerti, a researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels.

Syriza may find an ally in Spain’s Podemos party, which calls for greater parliamentary control over the ECB and unlimited purchases of government bonds. It claimed five seats.

“We’ll work with other colleagues in southern Europe to say in the European Parliament that we don’t want to be a colony of Germany or the troika," Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias said in a televised press conference.

The 751-member European assembly will have a voice in naming the next president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm. On that point, the mainstream parties still hold sway. Provisional results gave centre-right parties 212 seats, leading their standard-bearer, former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker, to claim the commission post. The Socialists, led by Germany’s Martin Schulz, got 185 seats. A deal between the two political groups may be the only avenue to a majority.

Rattle Cameron

While far from dictating 75% of national laws as asserted by Farage, the EU Parliament serves as a lightning rod for economic and social grievances. The protest vote was a sum of contradictions. Austria’s Freedom Party argued that bailouts for debt-stricken southern countries were too generous; Syriza contended they weren’t generous enough.

Farage said his goal is to rattle Cameron’s government, forcing curbs on immigration and paving the way to a 2017 referendum on Britain quitting the EU.

“We’re going to get a good number of euro-skeptics elected to the European Parliament," Farage told Brussels reporters via video link. “Whether that makes a big difference in European politics remains to be seen, but it’s going to make a big difference in domestic politics."

German support dipped for Chancellor Angela Merkel, the dominant figure in European debt-crisis diplomacy. While her Christian Democratic Union-led bloc placed first, it did so with 36% of the vote, down from 42% in last year’s national election, according to ARD. The anti-euro Alternative for Germany party was set to win its first seats in any election with 6.5% of the German vote, an ARD television exit poll showed.

Renzi wins

One exception to the European rule came in Italy, where Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party defeated the populist challenge of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement. That gives 39-year-old Renzi a victory in his first national vote.

Politicians with anti-EU bullhorns achieved something that had eluded pro-Europeans ever since the first European Parliament elections in 1979: a halt to the steady decrease in turnout. Some 43.1% of the 400 million eligible European voters cast ballots, up from 43% in 2009. Bloomberg

Jonathan Stearns, Nikos Chrysoloras, Marcus Bensasson, Eleni Chrepa, Alessandra Migliaccio, Chiara Vasarri, Jeff Black, Robert Hutton, Thomas Penny, Gregory Viscusi, Mark Deen and Patrick Donahue contributed to this story.

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