Italy’s Matteo Salvini has formally launched his much-anticipated bid to unite European far-right parties ahead of EU elections in May. "We want to reform Europe," he declared during a press conference at a swanky hotel in central Milan. "For many people, the EU is a nightmare, not a dream," said the Italian interior minister and deputy prime minister.
Salvini has teamed up with Germany’s right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, whose leader and currently the group’s only MEP, Jörg Meuthen was by his side. Also at the table were representatives from the Danish People's Party and the Finns Party of Finland, who are for now the only other confirmed members.
The new group will be called European Alliance of Peoples and Nations (EAPN), Meuthen said, and is open to anyone for whom conservatism and patriotism are important. "Not welcome are socialists, communists, eco-fascists and extremists — be they from the left or right," he added.
The meeting, entitled "Towards a Europe of Common Sense: Peoples rise up," was hyped as a much bigger event — something Salvini played down when asked. "It wouldn’t have been possible to have a press conference with 15 people from 15 parties."
The National Rally of France's Marine Le Pen and Austria's ruling Freedom Party (FPÖ) were not at the event, but have confirmed their existing cooperation with the League. The three parties currently sit in the same group in the EU assembly.
A 'Europe of common sense'
Salvini’s promise of shaking up the EU strikes a chord with many far-right parties, which share many broad ideological goals such as curbing migration and returning power to national governments. But they differ on other key areas, like the free market or how money from the EU budget should be carved up.
The absence of many of the biggest populist players at this event may speak to that disparity. But those present were quick to skirt around the issue of differences. "The things that unite us are bigger than the things that divide us," said Anders Vistisen of the Danish People’s Party.
Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right National Rally, didn’t attend the event, nor did any representatives from her party. But she and Salvini are already closely aligned. The two leaders met in Paris on Friday and both took to Twitter to talk up their blossoming coalition. Le Pen said she was "ready to win" with Salvini. While Salvini said he was committed to "widening the alliance" of those who wanted to bring some "common sense to Europe."
The two leaders have long agreed that Europe needs change and are already grouped together at the European level.
A numbers game
Right-wing populist parties are indeed on the rise across the continent. They are in power in Italy, Hungary, Poland and Austria and, according to polls, are set to make significant gains in the European elections come May. But the problem at the EU level has been coordination and finding a unified voice — It’s precisely that problem that Salvini hope to change.
Europe's populist parties are are currently split into three different groups; the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) — to which Salvini’s League belongs, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), or Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD).
As it stands, the ENF has 37 MEPs, the parliament’s smallest grouping. On current projections, Salvini’s League party looks set to pick up 28 seats — up from just five in the previous election in 2014. Germany’s AfD could go from having just one MEP (after several MEPs elected in 2014 on the AfD’s rolls left the party) to 13. But even with the promise to join forces, they’ll need to convince other to join too if they’re dream of setting the agenda is to become reality.
Salvini’s supporters seem to think he’s the man for the job. "It is crucial that we are not alone, that we work together," Maximilian Krah, AfD’s third candidate for the European Parliament, told DW last month. "I think that Salvini is the person who can integrate a very different national conservative movement."
Salvini and his EAPN will need far more support if they’re going to make waves in Brussels — a reality of which he is keenly aware. He’s been cozying up to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the chairman of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), Jaroslaw Kaczynski. As yet, the two parties don’t seem ready to jump ship — despite Orban’s Fidesz being suspended from the European People’s Party last month until further notice.
In response to a question about the lackluster response to this event, Vistisen told DW he hoped today’s EAPN launch would encourage more groups to get on board. In a plea to other populists, Vistisen said, "if you don’t believe in coming together, our opponents will win."
If Salvini is successful in winning over Poland’s PiS and Hungary’s Fidesz, the new grouping could well transform the parliament. But that’s still a big 'if'.
"We don’t want to fragment Europe," Salvini told the crowd. "We want to work together."