Italy's Salvini Vows to Unite EU Populists After Electoral Win

Seeks to forge a bloc from parties who are united around a strict euroskeptic, anti-migrant, anti-Islam platform

Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, left, meets with Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, in Milan, Italy, Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018.
Luca Bruno,AP

Italy's victorious right-wing leader, Matteo Salvini, says the European elections have created "a new geography" of anti-elite sentiment in the EU. But it is far from certain that he will be able to forge a bloc from parties who are united around a strict euroskeptic, anti-migrant, anti-Islam platform, but little else.

Salvini — who saw his once-regional League surge to 34 percent of the vote in Italy — is hoping for 100 to 150 EU deputies to fight back against deeper EU integration in the 751-seat legislature. He is likely to have many fewer.

The Europe of Nations and Freedom group that includes Salvini's League among its eight official members, along with the far-right leaders of France, Germany and the Netherlands, can claim 58 seats following the four-day parliamentary vote. National Rally leader Marine Le Pen, who narrowly the French polls, brings 22 seats to add to Salvini's 28, making them the dominant players in the group. 

Salvini is looking to fiercely euroskeptic leaders in Poland, Hungary and Britain — all top vote-getters in their countries — to fill out the ranks.

Their victories mean "there is a desire for future, there is a desire for change, there is a desire for work, there is a desire for dignity," Salvini said Monday.

But so far, there is no evidence that leaders from other populist parties will respond to Salvini's call.

Nigel Farage, the leader of the Brexit Party, doesn't appear to want any alliances in a political union that he is planning on abandoning. Poland's Law and Justice party has balked at Salvini's and Le Pen's sympathies for Russia, Warsaw's old nemesis. And Hungarian leader Viktor Orban is showing no signs of abandoning the European People's Party that has been his party's his home, despite being suspended over concerns that he has made Hungary less democratic.

Analyst Peter Kreko said Orban risks losing influence in Europe if he steps out of the protective umbrella of the EPP.

"There was no breakthrough of the populist, right-wing immigration forces," said Kreko, executive director of Political Capital, a Budapest research and consulting firm. "The big dreams of a huge euroskeptic group seem to have been rather idealistic."

Salvini also wants to bring in parties from the Czech Republic, Sweden and Spain, after receiving pre-election pledges from the Finns party and the Danish People's Party. But again, even among parties with lower European profiles, there have been no eager takers.

Whether he can overcome what he called "jealousies, sympathies, antipathies" will be the real test of his leadership on the European stage.

"We have to create an alternative, and to do so, you have to get in the game. You don't do it by turning up your noses," Salvini said Monday.

Even when Salvini has cemented his bloc — be it 58, 100 or 150-strong — it will still lack the power to make legislative change, with power still concentrated in mainstream parties that will have to work with liberal parliament members to create a working majority.

While Salvini is promising to restore sovereignty in policy areas as diverse as agriculture, finance and commerce, the reality is policies have been set by treaties and would require votes in each national parliament to undo, said Eleanor Spaventa, a professor of European law at Milan's Bocconi University.

"The real impact will be to block any European legislation they don't like," she said. "What they can do is to be very destructive."

Or, as Teneo analyst Wolfango Piccoli put it: "Populist parties will use their European Parliament representation to create noise."

It's a prospect that former White House strategist Steve Bannon, who has advised Europe's populists, welcomes. Bannon told The Associated Press that he expected a "supergroup" of euroskeptic parties would block any attempts to deepen integration among EU member states.

"Every day will be like Stalingrad," he said, in reference to one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles of World War II.

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Karl Ritter in Rome, Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Aritz Parra in Madrid, Greg Katz in London, Elaine Ganley in Paris and Vanessa Gera in Warsaw contributed.