Italy's Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini addresses a major rally of European nationalist and far-right parties ahead of EU parliamentary elections in Milan, Italy May 18, 2019 (Photo: Reuters)
Nationalist and far-right parties from across Europe held a rally on Saturday, led by Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, promising to reshape the continent following next week's EU parliamentary election.
Salvini, who heads Italy's League party, is confident his newly forged alliance will win a record number of seats at the May 23-26 vote, giving it a powerful voice in how the 28-nation European Union is run over the coming five years.
However, the gathering in front of Milan's gothic cathedral was overshadowed by a scandal engulfing one of Salvini's most prominent allies, Austria's Freedom Party, whose leader quit on Saturday as government vice-chancellor after he was videoed offering state contracts in exchange for political support.
While the beleaguered Freedom Party had to skip Saturday's event, parties from 11 countries did show up, including France's National Rally (RN), Germany's Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Dutch anti-Islam Freedom Party (PVV).
"This is an historic moment," RN leader Marine Le Pen told reporters ahead of the rally, held on a cold, wet afternoon.
"Five years ago we were isolated, but today, with our allies, we will finally be in a position to change this Europe," she said, predicting that the new alliance would be the third biggest group in the next EU parliament, against the eighth spot that the comparable far-right group claimed last time around.
Recent polls suggest the alliance will actually come fourth, but Le Pen said a number of other parties might eventually join it, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party, which is currently anchored to Europe's mainstream right.
The anti-immigrant Orban has publicly supported Salvini and promised cooperation after the vote, but he has so far refused to join any alliance with Le Pen, underscoring the divisions which have constantly plagued the nationalist camp.
The parties in the group share the broad goals of returning power to EU member states, curbing immigration and preventing the spread of Islam in Europe.
But they often have different social and economic policies, including budgetary discipline, meaning they might struggle to put forward a coherent policy agenda.
Speaking to Reuters on Friday, Salvini predicted that the forthcoming election would shake up the continent, reducing the grip on power that mainstream centre-right and centre-left parties have enjoyed in Brussels for decades.
League supporters flooded the central Milan square, which is flanked by elegant stores and bars, many of them carrying flags emblazoned with the slogan "Italy First".
"No one in Brussels has the right to tell us what we should do or say. They forced (economic) austerity on us and that can never be allowed to happen again," said Silvio Bianchini, 59, an engineer from the nearby town of Gardone Riviera.
Salvini's League is expected to emerge as Italy's largest party for the first time next week and could double its score from a 2018 national election, when it took some 17 percent.
However momentum for the party has slowed this month, with opponents accusing him of spending too much time on the campaign trail and not enough time behind his government desk.