BRUSSELS Britain's right-wing eurosceptic party, UKIP, believes it can win the largest share of British votes in elections to the European Parliament next year, a prospect that would rattle domestic politics and shake the corridors of Brussels.
Coming off a strong showing in local elections in May, when it polled more than 25 percent, and buoyed by a rising tide of anti-Europeanism, the UK Independence Party is now targeting next May's European elections, when it traditionally does well.
With a blunt message when it comes to the European Union - which UKIP sees as an evil empire that must be destroyed - the party is hoping popular frustration will boost it and like-minded parties across the continent.
"There is every prospect to realistically think that UKIP can mount a campaign on May 22 next year in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland where we could win the election," said Nigel Farage, the party's loquacious and outspoken leader.
"We could have the highest popular vote. I think that is an entirely realistic assumption," he told Reuters in an interview in his smoke-filled parliamentary office, where a coffin adorned with an image of the euro currency stands in one corner.
An ICM survey for the Guardian newspaper on Tuesday put UKIP on only 7 percent, down 5 percentage points in a month, and far too little in Britain's winner-takes-all system to sustain ambitions of claiming even a handful of seats in the national parliament.
But British voters traditionally take European as well as local elections less seriously then national ones, opening up opportunities for the smaller parties, and a first place for UKIP next May is not entirely out of the question.
The party has already attracted many disaffected Conservative voters - its membership has risen four-fold to 30,000 this year - and was only narrowly behind Labour and the Liberal Democrats at the last European elections in 2009.
Since then, Europe has been in crisis, with unemployment surging, economies contracting and growth prospects dimming, all of which is expected to fuel support for UKIP and similar "protest parties" in France, Italy, Germany and elsewhere.
Farage dismisses the "protest party" label, saying that disaffection with Europe is strong on the right, left and centre and that he expects that to be reflected in the next parliament.
Some political analysts see the protest vote accounting for 25-30 percent of the 751 seats in the chamber, a proportion that would alter the power balance and greatly complicate how the EU is managed.
Farage will not be drawn on how large he expects it to be, but thinks 30 percent is not impossible.
"Lots of eurosceptic groups with varying shades of euroscepticism will get elected from lots of European countries," he said, adding that the parties were not at this stage coordinating efforts across the 28 EU member states.
"There is no James Bond figure sitting here stroking a white cat and planning the downfall of the European Union. Although I wish there were in some way," he said, laughing.
While the European elections, which take place from May 22-25, are more than 10 months away, they already loom large in conversation and political calculation in Brussels.
If Europe's four traditional blocs - the centre-right European People's Party, the Socialists, the Liberals and the Greens - do badly in the polls, it could make it difficult to form a workable majority.
LIFE MORE COMPLICATED
That in turn will complicate the nomination of the next president of the European Commission, the EU executive, and make the passage of laws on banking-sector reform, data-sharing and environment policy that much harder.
Because eurosceptic parties are so diverse, they are not likely to form a cohesive bloc, but Farage still sees the prospect of some coordination. "It could be great fun," he says with a raucous laugh fuelled by years of smoking.
Asked with whom he feels a natural allegiance, Farage mentions Italy's Beppe Grillo and his Five Star movement. He calls French nationalist leader Marine Le Pen "brave" and admirable, but is uncomfortable with elements of her party.
"The whole anti-Semitic baggage is so great with that party that I don't really see her succeeding," he said.
Mostly, he sees the greatest impact from an anti-EU vote next year falling on domestic politics, where his mind is focused on chipping away at Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives and winning a seat in the British parliament.
Asked if he wants to be disruptive in Europe, Farage dismisses the thought, saying it has never been his aim.
"I am not a football hooligan. I'm a cricket fan," he says. "I like to criticise from the boundary ropes. Pitch invasions with shaven heads and tattoos, that's not for me."
Farage is, however, an agitator in Brussels, and his desire to undermine the European Union and those he refers to as the "bad people" in Brussels never slackens.
"I have no doubt that it won't be here in 30 years," he says. "At some point, patience will snap, and I suspect that what will break up Europe won't be democratic politics, it will be something far less pleasant, I'm afraid."
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)