Italy emerges as ground zero for European extremist populism

MILAN — Italy's populist interior minister is uniting Europe's right-wing parties under an anti-migrant, anti-Islam, anti-bureaucracy banner for this month's European Union elections, pledging to reshape the continent from its technocratic heart in the EU's base in Brussels.

The latest target of Matteo Salvini's wooing: Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban. The two bonded over a shared vision for a Europe with sturdy borders during a visit to Hungary by Salvini that included a tour of razor-wire fences Orban had built in 2015 to keep out asylum-seekers.

Frans Timmerman, a Dutch politician who is second in command of the EU's executive arm and running to be elected president, called the Salvini-Orban meeting "a love scene ... based on family values but which means discrimination."

Salvini, who became a Cabinet minister last year when his League party formed a coalition government with the populist 5-Star Movement, attracted Orban's admiration for closing Italian ports to humanitarian rescue ships carrying migrants picked up at sea.

Salvini's influence is clear in the growth of a euroskeptic political group in the European Parliament, Europe of Nations and Freedom, or ENF. The group counts far-right movements like France's National Rally and the Netherlands' Forum for Democracy at its core, and has expanded to include Alternative for Germany alongside more moderate Nordic parties.

Salvini is set to close out the campaign for the May 23-26 EU parliament elections with other right-wing populist leaders in Milan's Duomo Square on May 18. Speaking in Hungary, Salvini said that after the elections, "a new history will open for Europe and the people of Europe."

Orban's Fidesz party has until now been a member of the more moderate European People's Party alliance, the biggest group in the European Parliament, but that position is becoming increasingly strained. Fidesz was recently suspended from the group over concerns that Hungary has become less democratic under Orban's government.

Orban demurred when asked if his party would join ENF. But his intention to court Salvini seems clear. He told Italian daily newspaper La Stampa that while former Premier Silvio Berlusconi, a stalwart in the group that suspended Fidesz, remains his "best friend" in Italy, Salvini is the future.

"Salvini's role is more important," he told the newspaper.

Salvini is pledging to put politics at the center of EU decision-making and to sideline bureaucrats in Brussels who he says set policies without consideration for what the majority of Europeans want.

"This is a strong alliance that has never existed before. I wouldn't define it as the right, but as an alternative to bureaucrats," Salvini said in Hungary's capital, Budapest.

The elections could make Salvini's League the single largest party represented in the European Parliament, a prospect that has even conservative movements from outside Europe seeing him as someone to court ahead of the elections.

Former White House adviser Steve Bannon, a Salvini admirer, is setting up an academy for future populist leaders at a monastery outside Rome, despite intense local opposition.

Salvini also attended the annual World Congress of Families when it was held in Verona at the end of March. The ultra-conservative coalition based in the United States has anti-abortion, LGBT-hostile positions that contrast with Salvini's more liberal views, but playing a wide field gives him cachet with socially conservative Italian voters.

Some analysts say the European Parliament vote, typically not of much interest to voters, is shaping up to be the most consequential in two decades.

"The European elections are offering the opportunity to export the Salvini brand abroad, so bringing in these people, discussions and themes which are fairly controversial helps his message. He is trying to bring to Europe what he brings to Italy in terms of sovereign-based politics," said Wolfango Piccoli, co-president at Teneo consultancy.

The League is forecast to win as much as 32.3% of the EU parliament vote in Italy, according to the SWG polling agency. That compares with 22.5% for its governing coalition partner, the 5-Star Movement, and 21.5% for the opposition Democratic Party, according to the same data.

Any gains by the League are likely to be leveraged on a national rather than Europe-wide level, experts said, due to difficulties the parties in the Europe of Nations and Freedom group have had finding common ground on key issues such as monetary policy and climate change despite agreement on immigration.

While the ENF's influence is sure to expand in these elections "the question is, can they work together to maximize the leverage? They have struggled in the past," Piccoli said. And the other question falls on Salvini: "Can he become a leader of a united right-wing front in parliament?"

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