A record low 43 per cent of 375 million eligible voters cast ballots in European elections, a dismal result that could dent the credibility of the European Parliament, according to estimates early today.
Pollster TNS-Opinion's estimate said just over 161 million people participated.
Margot Wallstrom, the EU commissioner in charge of raising public awareness of the EU, called the low turnout "a bad result", adding it showed the need to work to change the perception that the European Union is detached from its citizens.
She said governments must make Europe a bigger factor in domestic politics to combat voter apathy and ignorance at a time when the 736-member EU legislature is exerting more influence and power over how the 27-nation bloc is run. The legislature has powers to vote on or amend two-thirds of all EU laws.
"It doesn't help to run European election campaigns on national agendas," Wallstrom said.
"We have a number of lessons to learn, for the (EU) institutions and for the member states... to connect better to the citizens."
The EU is hobbled by an enduring phenomenon: While European governments and mainstream politicians tend to take a European perspective, voters think and choose nationally.
The low voter turnout, and victories for fringe parties wanting to reduce the powers and size of the EU, underscored how unsuccessful the EU has been in making itself relevant in the eyes of the European electorate.
The first signs that the general public views the EU as an aloof project became evident in 2005 when French and Dutch voters rejected a European constitution.
That charter has since been watered-down to a reform treaty which was rejected in a 2008 referendum in Ireland. The Irish will stage a second referendum in the fall.
Early results and predictions:
About 200 people have clashed in the northern city of Manchester as the leader of the whites-only British National Party tried to enter the city's town hall.
British politicians fear an electoral breakthrough for the BNP in the European parliamentary elections. Anti-racism campaigners say a win for the BNP would be the first time Britons have sent an extreme-right politician to Brussels.
Police said one man was arrested in the clashes between anti-fascist protesters and BNP supporters of party leader Nick Griffin.
Meanwhile, an exit poll in Sweden indicates the new populist Pirate Party will be a major surprise in European Parliament elections.
The public broadcaster SVT survey says the Pirate Party, which advocates shortening the duration of copyright protection and allowing non-commercial file-sharing, has won 7.4 per cent of the Swedish vote.
The survey shows the main opposition Social Democrats getting 25 per cent, up slightly from the previous European Parliament elections in 2004.
In second place was the conservative Moderate Party, Sweden's leading party in the centre-right coalition government, also up slightly with 18.5 per cent support.
One of the biggest losers in the Swedish vote was the Left Party, which the exit poll gave 5.7 per cent - down from 12.8 per cent in 2004. Sweden has 18 seats in the European assembly.
In Madrid, Spain's Conservative Popular Party has won two more seats in the European Parliament than the ruling Socialists with over 88 percent of the vote counted.
The Popular Party won 23 seats, earning 42 percent of Spain's vote compared to the Socialists, who captured 21 seats with 38.6 percent of the vote.
Minor parties claimed five seats Sunday -- United Left and the Coalition for Europe won two seats each and Union for Progress and Democracy elected one candidate.
Spain, with 43.8 million people, has 50 seats in the 736-seat EU parliament.
Both main parties focused on the world economic downturn but voters appeared more interested in domestic issues.
A total of 35.5 million people were eligible to vote and turnout was just over 45 percent.
Originally appeared in The New Zealand Herald