On May 22-25, Europeans will go to the polls to elect a new European Parliament. Although the Parliament’s 766 members (MEPs) represent the world’s second largest electorate, after India, many observers discount the importance of the twice-a-decade vote. On one hand, the EP seems to face a crisis of relevance: voter turnout has declined in every election since voting began in 1979, reaching a low of 43 percent in 2009 with only 29 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds participating. Yet this election, taking place during a time of political and economic crisis in Europe, is being carefully watched as an indicator of changing attitudes toward European integration and EU policies.

Recent polls indicate that the EP’s two largest parties, the center-left S&D (currently with 194 seats) and the center-right EPP (now with 275), will receive nearly identical shares of votes, leaving both with about 214 MEPs. This projected leveling out comes with a shift away from the center, with far-left and far-right parties gaining seats.

Against the backdrop of struggling national economies, austerity policies and rising unemployment — increasingly attributed to intra-EU immigration — populist “euroskeptic” parties are ascendant. Polls indicating that euroskeptic parties may even win the plurality of votes in the United Kingdom and France have led some to predict that the May election could be a referendum on European integration.

On May 22-25, Europeans will go to the polls to elect a new European Parliament. Although the Parliament’s 766 members (MEPs) represent the world’s second largest electorate, after India, many observers discount the importance of the twice-a-decade vote. On one hand, the EP seems to face a crisis of relevance: voter turnout has declined in every election since voting began in 1979, reaching a low of 43 percent in 2009 with only 29 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds participating. Yet this election, taking place during a time of political and economic crisis in Europe, is being carefully watched as an indicator of changing attitudes toward European integration and EU policies.

Recent polls indicate that the EP’s two largest parties, the center-left S&D (currently with 194 seats) and the center-right EPP (now with 275), will receive nearly identical shares of votes, leaving both with about 214 MEPs. This projected leveling out comes with a shift away from the center, with far-left and far-right parties gaining seats.

Against the backdrop of struggling national economies, austerity policies and rising unemployment — increasingly attributed to intra-EU immigration — populist “euroskeptic” parties are ascendant. Polls indicating that euroskeptic parties may even win the plurality of votes in the United Kingdom and France have led some to predict that the May election could be a referendum on European integration.

The far left, led by the GUE-NGL party, is expected to increase its share of votes from its current 35 to 57, making it the assembly’s third-largest bloc. Pushing back against austerity measures and advocating increased funding for social programs, far-left candidates have seen their support increase especially in countries such as Greece and Italy.

On the far right, two parties have risen to particular prominence: France’s Front National (FN) and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) across the English Channel. Both countries use a first-past-the-post voting system in domestic elections, limiting the influence of both UKIP and FN in their national assemblies, but the EP elections’ proportional representation system may give the two parties a louder voice.

Front National, which made significant gains in Sunday’s local elections across France, has seen its anti-immigrant, anti-EU platform gain broad appeal in recent years, with its leader Marine Le Pen garnering 18 percent of votes in the 2012 presidential election. A March 19 survey by Pollwatch 2014 projected FN winning 20 percent, just trailing the center-right UMP (22 percent) and ahead of the center-left Parti Socialiste (16 percent).

UKIP has seen even wider support, with a ComRes poll earlier this month showing the party leading with 30 percent  over Labour (28 percent) and the Conservatives (21 percent). UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who capitalizes on his common-man appeal while painting Conservative PM David Cameron as elitist and out of touch, has taken care to distance his party from FN and other “fascist” parties. In contrast to these parties, whose leaders Farage has called the “sorts of people you wouldn't want to take home to meet mum for tea on Sunday afternoon,” UKIP presents its platform as common sense, saying of its stance to curtail immigration, “It’s not racism; it’s realism.”

The rise of the euroskeptics in the UK and France, however, is not mirrored in all EU constituencies. While the far right has recently gained support in several countries — most notably Hungary, Latvia and France — it has also lost popularity in a similar number of countries. Europe-wide polls call for far-right and far-left blocs to make gains, but not enough to depose the centrist parties or significantly change EP legislation. Even Farage, despite his recent jubilance about the euroskeptics’ rise, has said, “We cannot change a thing in Europe.”

A strong showing for anti-EU parties in the May elections could, however, make waves in domestic politics. Farage, speaking in February,  said “I want us to use the European elections to cause an earthquake in British politics,” pressing Labour and the Tories to adopt elements of UKIP’s platform. On the other hand, parties such as UKIP and FN could continue to act as spoilers, drawing votes from their more centrist counterparts and shifting electoral outcomes.

Whatever the results of the May EP elections, the political landscape across Europe is certainly shifting. EU policies will continue to come under fire, with immigration an easy scapegoat for economic troubles, and widespread dissatisfaction with governing parties will likely push more voters to the fringes. The question now is how the EU will respond to this burgeoning dissent.