With barely a month before Europe goes to the polls, Italy’s Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini, called for a united coalition among Europe’s far-right and Eurosceptic parties, to be called the European Alliance of Peoples and Nations. Salvini leads the anti-migrant populist League party.
Salvini hopes this alliance will result in the largest bloc of 70-80 members of “international nationalists” in the 751-member European Parliament, after the May 23 elections – some of whom seek to take down the institution from within.
Over time, many of these parties have moved away from explicit rhetoric about tearing down the EU, and instead speak of “taming” it. To that end, Steve Bannon, the infamous former chief political strategist, of US President Donald Trump, has set up an organisation based in Brussels, called The Movement, aimed at providing polling support to populist parties that favour anti-migration policy, and stronger national sovereignty.
Bannon has also advised Salvini to attack the Pope over his sympathy to refugees. A League insider said that “Bannon advised Salvini himself, that the actual Pope is a sort of enemy. He suggested for sure to attack, frontally.” Salvini also announced this project mere days after meeting with Bannon in Rome, leading some to suggest that Bannon has informally picked Salvini as the unofficial frontrunner for his Eurosceptic Movement.
During the announcement in Milan, Salvini was flanked by Joerg Meuthen, of Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD), a similarly right-wing Eurosceptic and anti-migrant political party. Joining them were Olli Kotro, from the Finns Party, and Anders Vistisen of the Danish People’s Party, which are also equally right-wing nationalist parties in their respective countries. Austria’s Freedom Party (FPÖ) also agreed to join the alliance. However, Marine Le Pen of France’s National Rally (NR), representatives from Poland’s Law and Justice Party (PiS), and Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party, were all absent.
“Today for many citizens and peoples, the European Union represents a nightmare”, Salvini told those assembled, who met under the slogan that read in four languages “Toward a Common-Sense Europe, People Rise Up.”
“We’re making work, family, security, environmental protection, the future of youth, central again, (with) alternative movements to those that have governed for decades”, Salvini said.
Denmark’s Anders Primdahl Vistisen, a Danish politician, Member of the European Parliament from Denmark, and member of the Danish People’s Party, agreed. He noted that “this project is about defending nation states’ rights to find their own path”.
“If you let our opponents divide us, you will see more Brussels (EU), less security, and the multiculturalism and the identity of Europe’s policies taking over the national identities of the 27 European countries”, Vistisen said.
Similarly, the prewritten statement, signed by Austria’s FPÖ, said that the alliance would “fight for a safer Europe, with well protected external borders, less immigration and a stronger cooperation to tackle terrorism and Islamisation”.
Salvini also addressed the issue of Turkey, which is seeking to join the EU. Currently, accession talks are suspended, but Salvini said talks with Turkey should be cancelled altogether. Salvini considers the country an unwelcome Islamic influence that is “not needed in Europe”, as the country is too different, from a cultural point of view.
At this meeting, he railed against experts and intelligentsia, saying that “the European dream is being buried by the bureaucrats, the do-gooders and the bankers, who are governing Europe for too much time”. In Salvini’s vocabulary, calling people “do-gooders” is an insult. Similar rhetoric is also common among Germany’s AfD, where opponents are derided as “Gutmensch”. It was so prevalent that in 2015, a jury of linguists and writers chose it as the “worst word”, due to its pejorative use for those “who oppose attacks on refugee homes”. Its use showed that “tolerance and helpfulness are generally defamed as naïve, stupid and unworldly”.
This topsy-turvy world view derides both fellowship and learned expertise. The erosion of values has also led to increased physical and verbal attacks on migrants in Italy.
But this wave of vitriol is now threatening the stability of the European Union, and this election is something of a referendum on the whole project, due to not just Salvini’s new alliance, but the increasingly protracted Brexit. President Emmanuel Macron of France, expressed concern that this new bloc could plant “the seeds of destruction” in a project, that for all its faults, has given the continent 70 years of peace.
In February, France recalled its ambassador from Italy, after leaders in the Five Star Movement went to France to seek an alliance with the Yellow Vest protestors. In an interview in March with Fabio Fazio, a popular Italian talk show host and notorious “do-gooder”, Macron said that “some defend nationalism. But I will fight these people with force, because I think they will make us lose 10 or 20 years by dragging us back to old divisions”.
Despite not openly joining Salvini’s bloc, as his party currently belongs to the European People’s party (EPP) group, Orban has voiced admiration for the project. (Worth noting is that the EPP was suspended, after running a campaign accusing European Commission head, Jean-Claude Juncker, of plotting to “flood Europe with migrants”.) And despite not being present, Salvini and Le Pen met in Paris, to discuss who would lead the new populist bloc, which certainly implies her party’s future cooperation on the project. On top of that, European populists plan to hold a rally in Milan, on May 18th, one that Le Pen is planning to attend.
“We’re preparing a major event for the Europe of the next 30 years, in May, in Italy, where we’ll invite all the European movements that are alternatives to the rule of the Socialists, and the European People’s Party of recent years”, Salvini said, referring to the EU’s big leftist and conservative groups.
“It will be the first time that an event, drawing together at least 15 or 20 European countries, will take place in Italy,” he told reporters. The League hopes to host the rally in Rome’s ancient chariot-racing stadium, the Circus Maximus.
However, as much divides these populists as unites them. Formerly relegated to the political margins, these increasingly mainstream nationalist and Eurosceptic parties, are currently divided into three blocs: the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group – which includes Salvini’s League and NR, as well as Austria’s Freedom Party, and the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, and the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD).
Nevertheless, while Salvini insists that the parties see eye to eye on “identity and tradition”, economics are likely to drive them apart. AfD and their Scandinavian allies tend to prefer the market economy, but France’s NR favours protectionist measures. On religion too, Italy’s League, Poland’s PiS, and Hungary’s Fidesz, highlight Christian roots in Europe, but France’s NR remains staunchly in favour of secularism. And while both Salvini and Le Pen have praised Russian President, Vladimir Putin, neither Poland’s PiS nor the Finns party share their rosy view of the Russian president. These differences could very well fracture the right-wing alliance before it gets off the ground.
“The Eurosceptics are a wing of many feathers, and I’m not sure it will beat effectively,” said one senior official in the European People’s Party, the main centre-right group.
In fact, despite attending Salvini’s initial kick-off event, Poland’s PiS has already decided to skip Salvini’s May rally, due to his positive view of Putin. Instead, PiS recently welcomed the Brothers of Italy, a former ally of Salvini’s League, into an alliance with them, as part of the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe.
“We met (Salvini) a few weeks ago and we spelt out our conditions when it comes to the European parliament. We do not envisage any further contact until after the election”, said Tomasz Poreba, PiS’s EU ballot campaign chief.
“We are the real sovereigntists. They are populists. I don’t think Salvini’s project is very clear about what it wants with Europe”, said Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni, to La Stampa newspaper.
Now, both PiS and the League are courting Spain’s Eurosceptic party, Vox.
Salvini’s timing of his pronouncement is worth noting. He announced his project right as his fellow Deputy Prime Minister, Luigi Di Maio of the Five Star Movement, appears increasingly unsteady in his post, one that is technically senior to Salvini’s. That is because while last year, both parties polled equally, since then Five Stars has lost ground to the League, which doubled its popular standing from 17% to over 30% since last year’s elections. Their rise only slowed when Italy’s economy started to falter.
Di Maio said he was worried that the League was allying itself “with Holocaust-denying forces”, a charge both contested by Salvini and AfD’s Meuthen. Di Maio also wrote an open letter to Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading newspaper, calling it “paradoxical” that Salvini was seeking a formal alliance “with those countries who refuse to accept the redistribution of migrants who arrive in Italy”.
“It would be nonsense to complain to the European Union that they don’t accept the quotas, and then hold close to parties from the same countries (I’m thinking of Orban) that are the cause of our emergency. Countries that snub us, violate the laws, and lack respect for Italy and the Italians.” Salvini responded by calling out his senior partner’s failed attempt to ally with France’s Yellow Jackets.
Salvini altogether rejected the notion that he or his allies were extremists, saying that they all had a “clear memory of what happened in the past, but the tired debate of left and right, fascists, communists, that’s not what we are passionate about, or what 500 million European citizens are passionate about. The debate on the past we will leave to the historians”.
Maybe he should pay attention to the present. Surveys conducted by the European Parliament last year, found that 62% regard their nation’s membership in the EU positively, and 68% said they believe their nation has benefited from EU membership. While many EU citizens view lawmakers in Brussels with some suspicion, and pay more attention to national politics, these results are nonetheless a clear sign that while the EU has a lot of work to do, most Europeans would prefer to stay within the EU rather than leave it – or end it.