Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister, will assert his leadership of European far-right and nationalist parties on Saturday, with a mass campaign rally alongside France’s Marine Le Pen and the Alternative for Germany party.
The event in Milan, Mr Salvini’s political fief, for a “Europe of common sense” is intended as a show of strength and unity among Eurosceptic forces before European Parliament elections on May 23-26, when they are expected to make significant gains and become a powerful and potentially disruptive minority in the legislature.
But Mr Salvini has struggled to assemble a truly common front because of continued misgivings in some capitals about teaming up with Ms Le Pen.
Mr Salvini is likely to be a big winner in the elections. In Italy, his hard-right League is on course to win 31 per cent of the vote and 25 seats, leaping from 6 per cent and 5 seats in 2014, and overtaking Five Star, its coalition partner, as the most popular party.
Like other Eurosceptic leaders, Mr Salvini no longer talks about leaving the euro or the EU. But he has been strident in blasting Brussels in a gruelling campaign that often features three rallies a day.
“In five years we will find ourselves in an Islamic state, based on precariousness, hunger and fear,” he said at a rally in the city of Alessandria this month. “We’re going to free Europe — if you give us a hand that’s what we will do.”
Mr Salvini’s success has made him the go-to man for Europe’s Eurosceptics. He has formed a pan-EU group, the European Alliance of People and Nations, encompassing far-right parties from France, Germany, Austria, Finland, Denmark and Estonia as well as Italy.
“We will be the largest party on the right of the spectrum,” said Anders Vistisen, an MEP from the far-right Danish People’s party that will be part of Mr Salvini’s alliance. Mr Vistisen expected the group to have anywhere between 75-100 MEPs.
Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, which polls suggest could win up to 30 per cent of the UK’s vote, has also asked to join the alliance, said Mr Vistisen. British MEPs will stay in the European Parliament until the UK formally leaves the bloc.
Yet despite repeated efforts, Mr Salvini has so far failed to bring on board two of the most influential nationalist parties in Europe — Hungary’s Fidesz, which was suspended from the centre-right European People’s party last month, and Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS).
Those two parties, both of which are in government, want to persuade the EPP, likely to emerge from the elections once again as the biggest party, to work with nationalists and ultraconservative forces rather than the centre-left.
Viktor Orban, the Hungarian premier, has lauded Mr Salvini. But he told The Atlantic magazine this week that he would not join forces with Ms Le Pen because she was not in power.
“When political leaders are out of power, they can say and do anything they like. They can slip out of control. I don’t want to get mixed up with any of that,” he said.
Zdzisław Krasnodębski, a PiS MEP, told local media this week that Ms Le Pen’s pro-Russia stance meant “the differences in our programmes are too large”.
“Marine Le Pen is a no go for us,” said a senior PiS figure. The Sweden Democrats have also spurned the new group because of its pro-Russia leanings.
That means Europe’s rightwing nationalists will probably remain split into two groups after the elections, an advance on the three-way split.
Some experts play down the potential threat from resurgent far-right forces, pointing to their policy differences, a lack of organisation and a relatively poor attendance record in the parliament.
“With the efforts so far, Salvini has been more successful than in previous attempts to bring together radical right Eurosceptics,” said Sara Hobolt, a professor at the London School of Economics. “But the reason to be sceptical about their effectiveness in the long-term is that group cohesiveness has traditionally been low on the radical right. I don’t see any reason why it would be different this time.”
Mr Salvini has said little about how the new far-right alliance will actually change the EU, creating suspicion that he is using it to burnish his leadership credentials in Italy.
“It is not necessarily Salvini becoming preoccupied with European policy, it is all part of his positioning on domestic policy,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Institute for International Affairs in Rome.
“Ahead of EU elections he can present himself not only as a national leader, but the European leader of a nationalist front.”
Francesco Galietti, chief executive of Policy Sonar, a Rome-based consultancy, said Mr Salvini was defying conventional political wisdom by campaigning on such a hard-right platform.
“A belief exists out there that Salvini will at some point lose his ‘primal rage’ since he now has the traditional League vote already locked up and can only make gains from courting centrist voters. Yet here you have [him] going in hard and heavy, guns blazing, proving all these theories wrong.”
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