European elections a moment of truth for nationalists

Matteo Salvini in Settimo Torinese, Milan on 12 May

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Mr Salvini has travelled across Europe in an attempt to drum up support for a nationalist alliance

In little more than five years, Italy’s Matteo Salvini has transformed himself from the leader of a half-forgotten regional party to a figurehead for the populist far right in Europe.

The leader of the right-wing League has become Italy’s most powerful politician and, as Europeans prepares to vote in EU elections, his next ambition is to form a pan-European nationalist alliance.

An array of nationalist leaders will join a Salvini-led rally in Milan on Saturday, but for some of them this is an awkward fit and the acid test will come after the vote.

Salvini issues Europe rallying cry

By James Reynolds, BBC News, Turin

Matteo Salvini does not like to be interrupted. A few minutes into his campaign rally in this northern Italian town, a small group of hecklers caught his attention.

He raised his finger. “If you touch any of the good people in the crowd,” Matteo Salvini shouted at the hecklers, “I will get angry like a beast. OK? OK?”

It was a short, memorable flash of temper and the largely working class crowd which gathered to see him appeared to enjoy whatever Mr Salvini did.

His transformation into a European political heavyweight has come by repeating attacks against a consistent series of enemies: extremist Islam, illegal migrants, and European Union rules.

His next step is to bring together Europe’s disparate far right. These elections are a test of his appeal both in his own country and on the wider continent.

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Selfies with Matteo Salvini are an important draw for his supporters

From France, Italy and Germany at the heart of the EU to Scandinavia and the Baltics in the north and taking in Hungary and Slovakia in the east, Mr Salvini wants to take on the EU mainstream.

“Salvini is the future of Europe,” one woman told me.

Hundreds queued up to take pictures with him. The selfie-taking portion of this event lasted at least twice as long as Mr Salvini’s speech. His readiness to take pictures is a major part of his persona.

An awkward alliance starts to take shape

Bethany Bell, BBC News, Vienna

This is not the first time Europe’s far-right, populist parties have sought to present a united front.

Matteo Salvini was among a number of other leaders who met in January 2017 in the German city of Koblenz to demand a “Europe of Fatherlands”.

Also there were Marine Le Pen of the French far right, Dutch anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders and the head of Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

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The Koblenz meeting was greeted by anti-fascist protesters

Notable for his absence was Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), which is arguably Europe’s most well-established far-right movement.

He chose to fly to Washington for President Trump’s inauguration – and sent his deputy to Koblenz instead.

With its anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim messages, the Freedom Party has been a source of inspiration for many of Europe’s populist movements, notably AfD, the Finns Party and the Danish People’s Party.

All of these parties have signed up to Mr Salvini’s alliance.

Mr Strache, whose FPÖ is currently in coalition with Sebastian Kurz’s conservatives, enjoys cordial relations with Matteo Salvini.

But they have clashed over Freedom Party proposals to give dual citizenship to the German speaking minority in South Tyrol in northern Italy. It is an example, analysts say, of competing nationalisms.

Many of these parties may agree on what they oppose for Europe, but analysts suggest it may be harder to agree on a common course of action.

Northern and southern parties have very different views on the EU’s budget. And while Mr Salvini, Mr Strache and Ms Le Pen are interested in closer relations with Russia, that goes down very badly with parties in Eastern Europe, notably Poland.

Will France’s Le Pen fit in Salvini’s plan?

By Lucy Williamson, BBC News, Paris

There’s been a certain stiffness in the air around Marine Le Pen’s new political courtship. Perhaps it’s not surprising; company is not something her party is used to.

It’s not that France’s populist leader is unenthusiastic about her Italian partner’s rise to power.

An early campaign poster for the European elections featured a large portrait of Ms Le Pen alongside Matteo Salvini. “All over Europe,” the caption said, “our ideas are coming to power.”

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In April, Marine Le Pen tweeted this picture of a meeting with Italy’s interior minister and League leader

And the growing strength of populists across Europe has led her National Rally (Rassemblement National in French) party to change its policy on EU membership. There’s no more talk of “Frexit”, or even a referendum on the subject; the party now talks of changing Europe “from within”.

There’s no doubt Europe’s grand, old, populist party lends weight to Mr Salvini’s new alliance, but both the politics and the diplomacy of its role are tricky.

“Lega is the Italian Rassemblement National,” one senior RN adviser told a French newspaper. “Salvini created his party on our model. Even as a young man, he was asking Marine for selfies.”

“We have no ego contest,” Marine Le Pen said recently. But there’s no doubt who is now leading Europe’s nationalist parties – and it’s not clear how well her party fits in.

The RN is not popular among Europe’s other populists. Its warmth towards Russia, its historic image of anti-Semitism, and alleged fraud in its handling of European parliament funds have all contributed to tensions.

Hungarian PM Viktor Orban recently said he wanted nothing to do with Ms Le Pen.

It shows the challenge of uniting Europe’s populist parties, all of whom pride themselves on putting national interests first.

And even if they get the seats they’re hoping for, the new group won’t amount to more than a quarter of the EU chamber; what Le Monde newspaper this week described as a “blocking minority that will let them carry on undermining things”.

Will ‘Trump’s Twin’ sign up?

By Nick Thorpe, BBC News, Budapest

As the poster-boy of the far right in Europe, any new nationalist alliance would look pale without Viktor Orban.

Hungary’s leader has invited both Matteo Salvini and Heinz-Christian Strache to Budapest in recent weeks, but he has been reticent about joining a new “nationalist bloc” after the EU elections.

His ruling Fidesz party still belongs to the EU’s biggest political grouping – the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) – even though the EPP suspended its membership because of its right-wing policies.

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Mr Orban met President Trump on Monday – his first visit to the White House

His hope until now was that he could drag the EPP to the right, then weld it into a tight alliance with a new, Salvini-led grouping, without quite merging with them. But his relationship with the centre-right is getting no better, and he identifies with the nationalist right so much more.

“‘Heinz-Christian Strache’s party was considered far-right, PiS (Law and Justice) in Poland was considered extremist or far-right… (Salvini’s) Northern League were considered extremists,” he told the BBC.

“But now we have experience of their behaviour and achievements as governing parties, they proved to be responsible, providing stability for their countries, ready and able to govern, and European in their own way with their own approach.”

A long-awaited audience with President Donald Trump in the White House on Monday has put further wind in Mr Orban’s sails.

His slogan in this election is: Support Viktor Orban’s Program, Let’s Stop Immigration.

It is a populist, popular, but peculiar message in a country where there are very few immigrants, in an EU in which more than 600,000 Hungarians are regarded as immigrants themselves.

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