Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini led a rally of his European far-right allies in front of Milan’s Gothic cathedral on Saturday. He pledged to change history after this week’s EU elections by making the populist alliance one of the largest groupings in the European parliament.
Flanked by France’s Marine Le Pen and leaders from nine other nationalist parties, Salvini began his speech to the packed Piazza del Duomo by quoting the British writer GK Chesterton: “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him but because he loves what is behind him.” He added that his group would remould Europe “not for our sake, but for our children”.
“There are no extremists, racists or fascists in this square,” he claimed. “The extremists are those who have governed Europe for 20 years in the names of poverty and precarity.” Protesters opposed to Salvini’s rally converged on Milan’s Sempione Park, while people hung banners that announced “Milan is anti-fascist” from their windows. Giuseppe Sala, the city’s centre-left mayor, said: “Nationalists won’t take the city.”
Salvini, who leads the far-right League, and Le Pen, leader of National Rally, are pushing for their Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group to become the European parliament’s third biggest party after the forthcoming elections.
Other speakers, including Geert Wilders from the Netherlands’ Party of Freedom, Anders Vistisen from the Danish People’s party and Jörg Meuthen from Germany’s AfD, stuck to the common rhetoric, invariably championing a crackdown on illegal immigration while “protecting European civilisation”. At the same time they maintained a barrage of attacks on Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker.
The contingent from Eastern Europe was represented by Bulgaria’s Veselin Mareshki, a businessman who founded the Volya party and who is referred to as the country’s Donald Trump; Jaak Madison, an MP for Estonia’s EKRE; Boris Kollár, leader of Slovakia’s We Are Family; and Tomio Okamura, the Czech-Japanese leader of the SPD party.
But the alliance is already off to a shaky start after Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of Austria’s Freedom party (FPO), one of Salvini’s strongest allies, was forced to quit as vice-chancellor on Saturday after a video emerged of him offering government contracts in return for political support. Harald Vilimski, the party’s lead candidate in the European elections, was due to attend the Milan rally but cancelled at the last minute.
When asked if the group would remain allied with FPO, Le Pen told reporters at a press conference earlier on Saturday: “We will respond when we have heard Mr Strache’s explanation. But whatever the truth of the accusations, FPO has 25% of the [Austrian] electorate, so [the accusations] won’t make the party disappear. I’m astonished that this video from 2017 emerges now, a few days before the elections.”
Photograph: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images
The different national groups may share common views about immigration and other issues. However there are many concerns that divide the alliance.
Earlier last week Salvini raised worries among some of his more budget-wary partners when he said he would be ready to break EU budget-deficit rules, upsetting financial markets. Other divisive issues include the distribution of migrants and relations with Russia.
Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who Salvini met in Budapest earlier this month, may cooperate with the new bloc if his Fidesz party is kicked out of the centre-right European People’s party after the elections, but does not want to join a group with Le Pen.
The nationalist allies from Denmark and Estonia are staunchly anti-Russia, contradicting the stance of both Salvini and Le Pen. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, who Salvini tried to woo during a visit to Warsaw in January, is likely to stay out of any formal grouping, partly due to concerns over Russia.
“We respect [their views] as they have many historic reasons to be very cautious about Russia,” Hervé Juvin, a candidate for MEP from the French National Rally, told the Observer in Milan. “France has a different history with Russia, and we consider Russian people as our friends.”
Juvin added that the main thing uniting the parties was their desire to “regain sovereignty” for their countries and “take back the power to make our own rules and control our borders”.
Salvini was praised by all at the event for closing Italian ports to migrants arriving by sea. The policy has helped his popularity flourish. In less than a year the League has overtaken its government coalition partner, the Five Star Movement, to become Italy’s biggest party. Final polls on voting intentions in the EU elections gave it around 30%, up from the 6.4% it gained in the 2014 European vote. Salvini has described the European elections as a “referendum between life and death”.
“Their main goal is tactical,” said Massimiliano Panarari, a politics professor at Rome’s Luiss University. “It doesn’t matter if they have different positions, it’s about political marketing – presenting themselves as an alternative to the current Europe – and having power in the European institutions.”
Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images
Chesterton and the fascists
GK Chesterton, the creator of the clerical detective Father Brown, was dogged by links to fascism long before his death in 1936.
Like many intellectuals in the inter-war years he lived in fear of communism and saw fascists such as Mussolini and Franco as a “healthy reaction” to what he saw as “corruption” in the body politic. The attraction wasn’t entirely political; Spanish and Italian fascists were Catholics like Chesterton. This, allied to accusations of antisemitism, make him at first glance a precursor of neo-nationalists like Matteo Salvini. However, many overlook his rejection of Hitler and the Nazis.