Brussels - Eurosceptic populists are projected to make gains in European Parliamentary elections in May but mainstream political groups ought to retain their majority, albeit with increasing signs of fragmentation, according to opinion polls.
The 705 new members of parliament elected in the May 23-26 election will help formulate new EU laws over the next five years and choose the successor to Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the European Commission, the bloc's executive arm.
The event is "one of the biggest democratic exercises anywhere in the world," with 373 million citizens from 27 EU countries having a chance to vote, parliament spokesman Jaume Duch Guillot told reporters.
Voters from Britain, which is due to leave the union on March 29, will not be participating.
Forces loyal to Italy's hardline Interior Minister Matteo Salvini and far-right French politician Marine Le Pen will make gains, according to an analysis of national opinion polls put together by the parliament.
The European People's Party -- usually described as a centre-right conservative group but also including MEPs from populist Hungarian premier Victor Orban's party -- is on course to remain the biggest voting bloc.
And, with the Socialists and Democrats as the second force, the traditional parties of the centre will remain the largest in the new parliament.
The survey forecast that the EPP will lose 34 seats and the Socialists 51 seats but retain 183 seats and 135 seats respectively.
The new parliament will have 705 seats, down from the current 751 because of Britain's scheduled exit from the 28-nation bloc.
The liberal group ALDE will move from fourth to third place with a projected 75 seats, compared to 68 today.
ALDE will displace the European Conservatives and Reformist (ECR) Group, which will see its share decline from 75 to 51 seats, with the departure of Britain's pro-Brexit Conservatives. Poland's eurosceptic Law and Justice (PiS) Party also belongs to the ECR.
- EU 'fragmentation' -
The liberal group could even -- according to the survey -- increase its representation to 93 seats if it is joined, whether formally or in an alliance, by French President Emmanuel Macron's Republic on the Move (LREM) party.
LREM's expected gains will however come at the expense of established centrist parties, not Pen's National Rally (NR), which the poll average shows will strengthen its position and win 21 seats.
The NR belongs to the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group, which could rise from 37 to 59 seats with help from Salvini's League, which is sceptical of Brussels but not outright opposed to Italy's EU membership.
The League, which counts only six seats in the current parliament, are projected to win 27.
Overall, eurosceptic and populist forces will represent more than a fifth of the new parliament if the ENF and ECR results are added to those of the EFD, which includes the League's coalition partner, the Five Star Movement.
But these gains are comparable to their current representation.
"Contrary to what some have said, the extremes, the nationalists and the populists are far from attaining a majority," analyst Christine Verger told AFP.
"Even if they increase a little in numbers, this will not fundamentally shake up the internal balance," said the analyst from the Jacques Delors Institute.
Gains by such groups in smaller EU countries have had little impact at the European level, she added.
Corinna Horst of the German Marshall Fund think tank said she would not put "too much weight" on polling results, especially this early.
The issue, Horst said, is less about populist gains than about the fragmentation of the European Parliament and EU Council summits gathering leaders of the member countries.
"The bigger question is how the EU will govern amidst this fragmentation," Horst said in an email to AFP.
In one example, the EU is split over how to share responsibility for asylum seekers, which has fuelled the rise of populist parties in Italy and other countries.
The EU remains deadlocked even though migrant arrivals have fallen sharply since a 2015 peak.
By Lachlan Carmichael