Italian populist leader Matteo Salvini on Saturday gathered Europe’s disparate nationalists for a unifying rally overshadowed by a major corruption scandal shaking Austria’s far-right coalition.
The Milan rally hoped to see leaders of 12 far-right parties marching towards their conquest of Brussels after next week’s European parliamentary elections.
Headliners Salvini of the anti-immigrant League and Marine Le Pen of France’s far-right National Rally (RN) want their Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group to become the third largest in Brussels.
“Stop the bureaucrats, bankers, do-gooders, migrant boats,” read one pro-Salvini banner. “Italy first,” read another as the speeches began.
Hundreds gathered in a Milan park for a counter-demonstration - “Welcome migrants, expel Salvini,” read one banner - as the city’s central Duomo square filled with League supporters massed under a light rain to listen to leaders’ speeches.
But explosive graft allegations against the leader of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) and Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache meant the party’s top candidate in next week’s elections pulled out of the Milan rally.
German media published hidden camera footage filmed two years ago in Ibiza appearing to show Strache promising a fake Russian backer public contracts in return for positive coverage in Austrian media.
Strache resigned and the FPOe’s coalition with Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s centre-right People’s Party (OeVP) collapsed after Kurz on Saturday announced new elections.
“There are no extremists, no racists, no fascists in this square,” Salvini told the crowd, brandishing rosary beads, hailing Europe’s “Judeo-Christian” roots and invoking the Virgin Mary.
Le Pen slammed “the dilution of nations”, saying “no” to immigration she said was “submerging our countries, endangering our people’s security.”
“Basta Islam,” repeated the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders. “The political elites in Brussels no longer deserve our trust.”
But besides thundering against Brussels and immigration, no mention was made of new policies.
“Europe needs more Salvinis,” said Wilders, who heads the Party for Freedom.
Relations with Moscow
Despite their shared dislike of immigration, multiculturalism, the left and the EU, Europe’s populists remain divided on many other key issues, including budgetary discipline, migrant distribution and relations with Moscow, as highlighted by the Austrian scandal.
French lawmakers recently called for a probe into links between the RN and US President Donald Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon after he discussed paying back a Russian loan to Le Pen’s party in a documentary.
Most of Europe’s rightwing nationalists are currently divided into three blocs and a tangled web of alliances in the European Parliament – an institution Salvini and Le Pen would like to overhaul if not destroy.
The ENF includes Austria’s Freedom Party, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang and Wilders’ Party for Freedom.
Notably absent from the rally was Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party and Poland’s governing PiS (Law and Justice party).
Orban has voiced admiration for Salvini and promised “cooperation” after the vote, but refuses any alliance with Le Pen.
He has his own problems after allegations from a rights group on Saturday that his election landslide last year was marred by vote-rigging and fraud.
Smaller parties such as Bulgaria’s Volya or Slovakia’s Sme Rodina, which is set to win a single MEP seat, joined the Milan rally.
‘Life or death’
While Salvini and Le Pen have close ties to Russia and President Vladimir Putin, eastern European far-right parties are wary of Moscow’s ambitions.
Critics say that an enduring alliance between the League and the Alternative for Germany (AfD), also due in Milan, would be impossible.
“Salvini for instance wants a European redistribution of refugees, [AfD lead candidate Joerg] Meuthen doesn’t want a single refugee,” leading German Green Party member Sven Giegold told Italy’s AGI news agency.
“What’s more, Meuthen doesn’t want to give a single cent to southern Europe,” he added.
Salvini hopes the future right-wing bloc will be able to implement laxer EU budget rules, which would be a boon for Italy’s struggling economy.
Salvini’s coalition relationship with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement of fellow Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio is increasingly fraught since they formed a government last June.
Recent opinion polls suggest that the League will go from six MEPs to 26, Le Pen’s RN from 15 to 20 and German’s AfD from one to 11.