MILAN, (AFP): 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 Islamophobic 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.
“Our battle is against totalitarianism: globalisation and Islamism,” Le Pen said ahead of the march.
Hundreds gathered in a Milan park for an anti-fascist 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 Sebastien Kurz’s centre-right People’s Party (OeVP) is on the brink of collapse.
– 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.
In Milan, Le Pen was forced to say that her party obeyed French party finance rules, which she called “strict” and “questionable” as they prevented the RN from borrowing money outside Europe.
French lawmakers recently called for a probe into links between the RN and 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 the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom, whose head Geert Wilders was also due in Milan.
Notably absent from the rally is 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 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, are to join the Milan rally.
– ‘Life or death’ –
“The European elections are a referendum between life and death, between the past and the future, a free Europe and an Islamic state based on fear,” Salvini told a recent rally.
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.
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.
(European nationalists rallied near Milan Cathedral far-right leaders gathered in Italy. Photo: AFP-Miguel MEDINA)
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