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Italy's Salvini calls for far-right unity ahead of EU parliament elections

Miguel Medina, AFP | Italy’s interior minister, deputy PM and federal secretary of Italy's Northern League (Lega Nord) right-wing regionalist political party, Matteo Salvini, speaks during a meeting of European nationalists on April 8 in Milan.

Italy's hardline Interior Minister Matteo Salvini called Monday for unity among Europe's far-right parties ahead of European parliamentary elections.

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Italy's hardline interior minister Matteo Salvini gathered a handful of European far-right parties in Milan on Monday in a bid to forge an unlikely alliance of nationalists ahead of next month's European parliament elections.

"We're broadening the community, the family. We're working for a new European dream," Salvini, who is also deputy prime minister, told journalists.

Salvini heads the anti-immigrant League party and was flanked by Joerg Meuthen of Alternative for Germany (AfD), Olli Kotro from the Finns Party and Anders Vistisen of the Danish People's Party.

Despite their shared dislike for immigration, multiculturalism, the left and the EU, Europe's populists remain divided on many other key issues.

"Today for many citizens and peoples, the European Union represents a nightmare," Salvini told the meeting in a luxury Milanese hotel held under the slogan -- "Towards a common sense Europe... Peoples 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.

The new bloc hopes to be the largest in the 751-member European Parliament after the May 23-26 elections, Salvini said.

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Notably absent from Monday's meeting were Marine Le Pen of France's National Rally (NR), Poland's governing PiS (Law and Justice party) and Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party.

Orban has voiced admiration for Salvini but his party currently belongs to the European parliament's centre-right European People's party (EPP) group -- although it has been suspended after it ran a campaign accusing European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker of plotting to flood Europe with migrants.

'Identity and tradition'

Most of Europe's right-wing nationalists are currently divided into three blocs and a tangled web of alliances in the European Parliament, which they would like to overhaul if not destroy.

They are 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.

Then comes the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group and the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD).

The dream of Salvini -- and of Steve Bannon, US President Donald Trump's former strategist -- has been to unite these disparate forces and form an "international of nationalists".

Salvini admitted that the various nationalist movements "have differences" but "they meet on questions of identity and tradition."

The group hopes to expand before the May elections to become "a force of government and change in Europe".

"Those who are undermining the European dream (are) the bureaucrats, the do-gooders, the bankers, who have governed Europe for too long. We want to bring the people back to governing Europe," he said.

A rally of European populists is planned for May 18 in Milan, which Le Pen should attend, he added.

Salvini met Le Pen for talks in Paris on Friday, amid questions about who would lead the new populist bloc.

Among the key policy differences between Europe's populist parties, the AfD and their Scandinavian allies tend to believe in the market economy, while the French NR favours a more protectionist approach.

While Italy's League, Poland's PiS and Hungary's Fidesz highlight Europe's Christian cultural roots, the NR has shied away from taking a similar stance in a country where the majority is in favour of secularism.

Salvini and Le Pen have both praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, a view not shared by PiS in Poland or the Finns Party.

Denmark's Vistisen said on Monday 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.

Monday's meeting came as the coalition government of Salvini's League and the Five Star Movement of fellow deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio which won elections a year ago appears increasingly jittery.

The League has doubled its popular standing from 17 percent to over 30 percent since last year's parliamentary elections, but its ascendency has started to falter along with the Italian economy.

The anti-establishment M5S, which is ideologically opposed to many League policies, has meanwhile fallen behind in the polls after winning 32 percent of votes last March.

Di Maio on Friday said he was worried by the League's "alliance with Holocaust-denying forces", a charge Salvini and AfD's Meuthen were on Monday again forced to reject.

(AFP)

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