Salvini and his allies rally around the idea of a Europe under attack from Muslims and liberal elites

Patrik Hermansson covered the first public appearance of Matteo Salvini’s far-right alliances ahead of the European Parliament elections.

Twelve leaders of radical and far-right parties gathered in Milan this weekend in front of crowds estimated to number 25,000. Although the parties have collaborated in for many years, this was the first public gathering of the alliance formed on an initiative Lega’s’ Matteo Salvini ahead of this week’s elections. The group aims to form a joint group in the European Parliament. HOPE not hate observed the rally on the ground and saw a worrying international convergence of nativist leaders who in many cases used clearly far-right rhetoric. “We must secure the future of our land and children”, Geert Wilders told the crowd.

A large stage had been put up on one side of Piazza del Duomo in central Milan, Salvini’s home town and one of the centres of support for Lega. The square and its cathedral are popular tourist attractions but it had been cordoned off by police ahead of the rally. Banners on the stage read “Stop! Bureaucrats, Bankers, Do-gooders”, otherwise most screens and banners displayed pictures of Salvini’s face or his name. Screens ran interviews and clips of the party leader taking selfies with voters on previous rallies across the country, while images or names of actual candidates in the upcoming European Parliament election was difficult to make out. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to think this was a campaign rally for Salvini himself, who has increasingly taken on a strong man role in the party, nicknamed “Il Capitano” by his supporters.

Welcomed by chants of his name from the crowd, Salvini said he wanted to “free the continent from the illegal occupation orchestrated in Brussels”, and that Europe had been betrayed by the “Merkels, the Macrons, the Soroses and the Junckers who built a Europe based on finance and uncontrolled migration.” The audience chanted “Matteo, Matteo, Matteo” in response.

Salvini’s Lega is doing well. The party dropped “Nord” from its branding in late 2017 and simply started calling itself Lega, an all-Italy nationalist party rather than a secessionist one. It has since soared in popularity and at the time of writing is polling at 31 percent, up from a result of 17 percent of the votes in the 2018 election in both of the country’s parliamentary houses. This opens up the possibility of a Lega-led government with Salvini as Prime Minister, potentially leaving the Five Star Movement outside completely. The relationship between the two parties – who are currently in a government coalition – is strained. The parties are united in their anti-EU stance, but differ on both immigration and economic policies. The Five Star Movement has campaigned on the introduction of a guaranteed basic income for the poor while one of Lega’s key policies is a 15 percent flat tax.

Although the weather was rainy, the crowd nearly filled Piazza del Duomo to listen to Salvini and his European partners. Among those there were Marine Le Pen of France’s Rassemblement National and Geert Wilders of the Dutch Party for Freedom. Alternative for Germany (AfD), Belgium’s Vlaams Belang (VB), Estonia’s EKRE and the Danish People’s Party (DPP) had all sent their main MEP candidates and central party figures, Jörg Meuthen (AfD), Gerolf Annemans (VB), Jaak Madison (EKRE) and Anders Vistisen (DPP). Representatives from Slovakias Sme Rodina, Austrian Freedom Party, Finland’s True Finns, Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) from Czech Republic and Volya from Bulgaria also addressed the rally.

Marine Le Pen

A march from another part of the city, also organised by Lega, ended in front of the 14th-century cathedral where crowds had gathered for several hours. The police presence was big and everyone who wanted to enter the rally was frisked and bags were checked. After holding a short speech, Salvini introduced the international guests one after another. The first speakers just received a few minutes while the big names, Wilders, Le Pen and himself, were given much longer.

It quickly became clear that it was primarily Salvini, rather than the European guests that had attracted most of the audience. The first speaker, Veselin Mareshki from Bulgaria’s Volya party, impressed the crowd by speaking Italian, while Boris Kollár of Sme Rodina’s admittance that he wasn’t proficient in the crowd’s native language received a cold response. Soon after, EKRE’s representative, Jaak Madison, also noticed the crowd’s impatience with the various speakers’ use of English and said he would go off-script only to exclaim that “Juncker, he should come to Italy and learn from Matteo Salvini how to protect our countries, our nationalities” and soon after ended his short speech.

The themes of the speeches were predictable and consistent. All focused on immigration and the supposed destruction of Christian, European values and the sovereignty of nations by current European elites. Tomio Okamura from Czech Freedom and Direct Democracy  said that Europeans could either choose “freedom and sovereignty of our peoples” or “leave the power to those who plan [the] extinction of nation states.” Much of the anti-EU rhetoric was focused on those made out to be the instigators of this “extinction”; repeated mentions of “Juncker”, “Macron”, and “Merkel” were met with jeers from the crowd.

Salvini and Le Pen were the only speakers that had a significant amount of time on stage and both emphasized the Christian heritage of European nations and attacked globalisation time and time again. “We’re under threat from wild globalisation ”, Le Pen said before adding “our Europe is the daughter of Athens and Rome, of Christianity and the Enlightenment”. Salvini repeated a motto familiar to his supporters, calling for “A Europe of common sense”.

Geert Wilders speech was comparatively (though, predictably) more anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant. “We have to stop Islamisation” and “No more ships with illegal migrants” were two of his statements that received the strongest response from the crowd. Showing his support for the new, gathered alliance, he told the crowd that “Europe needs more Salvinis”.

A success for Salvini’s project is far from certain, however. Salvini’s counterparts in Europe tend not to get along. Notable but expected absences were Viktor Orbán or any representative from Fidesz, as well as Poland’s Law and Justice. Orban has previously said that he’s uninterested to work with Marine Le Pen while Law and Justice differs from Salvini and Le Pen’s pro-Russian stances, which is also one of the reasons the Leader of the Sweden Democrats last month expressed disappointment that the Danish People’s Party and the True Finns had joined Salvini’s alliance.

Salvini has pulled Lega decisively to the far right since taking over the leadership, harshening anti-immigration and anti-EU rhetoric and even citing Mussolini. He made the party worryingly successful and simultaneously gained support by the mainstream as well as attracted votes from other far-right parties. The crowd at the rally was mixed, with families and elderly people as well as youth that cheered to the anti-immigration and anti-EU speeches. However, there was a small minority that clearly expressed more extreme points of view. Some supporters were seen making nazi salutes on multiple occasions.

Despite the far-right rhetoric, there was no open presence of other Italian far-right organisations at the rally. Parties like fascist Forza Nuova and CasaPound are now more clearly competing for Lega’s voters (although Lega and Forza Nuova have collaborated on local levels). The Forza Nuova party held their own separate demonstration just a few hundred meters away, right after Lega’s rally had ended, where a speech by leader Roberto Fiore likewise emphasised the “betrayal” of the people by EU elites.