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LONDON - From Sweden to southern Spain, and the Netherlands to Hungary, populist forces have gained seats in recent elections and they now see a chance at power in Brussels itself.

Europe is gearing up for EU parliament elections in May, a vote where the balance of power could shift decisively.

FILE - Flemish right-wing party President Filip De
FILE - Flemish right-wing party President Filip Dewinter attends a protest against Marrakesh Migration Pact in Brussels, Belgium, Dec. 16, 2018.

The campaigns are getting under way amid the fevered atmosphere of street protests in France and many other EU states, alongside growing brinkmanship in the negotiations on Britain's imminent withdrawal from the bloc.

The 751 members of the European Parliament (or MEPs) are directly elected every five years, and they form the legislative body of the bloc which has the power to pass EU laws and approve the appointment of EU commissioners.

Populist forces, backed by the power of street protests, look set to make the coming vote unlike any other in the bloc's history, according to analyst Michael Cottakis of the London School of Economics. He is also director of the '89 Initiative,' which seeks to engage younger generations in European decision-making.

"It's an opportunity to hit the piñata when the establishment presents it to you and get your policy opinions across," Cottakis told VOA. "Generally we've seen that the European elections have been a sort of locus in which angry, disaffected citizens essentially voice their concerns - the height of a delayed populist political backlash against a long period of economic hardship."

In France, far-right leader Marine Le Pen is seeking to align her National Rally party with the yellow vest protesters.

Coordinated May assault

FILE - Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini ge
FILE - Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini gestures as he attends a news conference in Rome, Italy, Jan. 14, 2019.

Across Europe, populist forces are attempting a coordinated assault on the May elections. Italy's far-right interior minister recently weighed in on the French protests, posting a video on social media in which he said he hoped "that the French can free themselves from a terrible president, and the opportunity will come on May 26."

The minister, Matteo Salvini, is trying to form alliances with governments in Hungary and Poland. Their common foe is immigration — but there are major contradictions, says analyst Luigi Scazzieri of the Center for European Reform.

"With Italy wanting other countries to take migrants but Hungary, for example, having absolutely no intention of doing so. So the real question is, will they be able to work together to form an effective group?'"

That's unlikely, says Michael Cottakis, citing other significant policy differences among Europe's populist governments.

"Italy is a member of the eurozone, Poland is not. And then in terms of foreign policy, very importantly, Poland is a great believer in the NATO alliance, terrified of Russia, greatly mistrusting of Vladimir Putin; whereas Salvini has openly expressed support."

Street fights back

A man holds an EU flag as he takes part in a prote
A man holds an EU flag as he takes part in a protest against a proposed new labor law, billed as the "slave law", in Budapest, Hungary, Jan. 19, 2019.

Political battle lines are being drawn, colors nailed to the mast. Several hundred self-styled red scarf' protesters staged counter-demonstrations in Paris Sunday, waving EU flags and voicing support for pro-EU President Emmanuel Macron of France.

In Hungary, the EU flag has been at the forefront of growing anti-government demonstrations. In Germany meanwhile, the Green party has overtaken the far right Alternative for Germany' party in the polls.

Populists are fast discovering they do not have a monopoly on the street. The real test of strength will come at the ballot box on May 26, a vote that could change the balance of power in Europe.