Salvini stakes out post as Europe’s populist leader
Matteo Salvini pledged to close Europe’s borders to migrants if the League wins not just the most votes of any party in Italy, but also of Europe.
Italy’s anti-migrant interior minister Matteo Salvini led a rally of right-wing populist leaders on Saturday seeking historic results in next week’s European Parliament elections.
Salvini, the head of Italy’s right-wing League party, has positioned himself at the forefront of a growing movement of nationalist leaders seeking to free the European Union’s member nations from what he called Brussels’ “illegal occupation”.
He pledged to close Europe’s borders to migrants if the League wins not just the most votes of any party in Italy, but also of Europe.
Salvini was joined by 10 other nationalist leaders, including far-right leaders Marine Le Pen of France’s National Rally party and Joerg Meuthen of the Alternative For Germany party.
Still, most of the tens of thousands of supporters that packed the square outside the central Duomo cathedral in Milan were there for Salvini.
League flags filled the square, with a smattering of national flags from other nations.
A short distance away, 2,000 protesters marched to protest against the right-wing gathering.
In front of the Duomo, Salvini railed against unchecked migration and decried Islam, saying it mistreated women.
He said Turkey would never be a part of Europe and rejected the label of extremists for the leaders with him.
“In this piazza, there are no extremists. There are no racists. There are no fascists.
“If anything in Italy and in Europe, the difference is between who looks ahead, between who speaks of the future … instead of making trials of the past,” he said.
The far-right and populist leaders in Milan are making one of the strongest challenges to the European status quo in decades, united under an anti-migrant, anti-Islam, anti-bureaucracy banner.
“It is an historic moment important enough to free the continent from the illegal occupation organised by Brussels for many years,” Salvini said.
He accused European leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker of “betraying Europe … by constructing a Europe of finance and uncontrolled immigration”.
Notably absent was the leader of Austria’s anti-immigrant Freedom Party, Heinz Christian Strache.
He stayed at home to resign as vice chancellor after two German newspapers showed video of him offering government contracts to a potential Russian benefactor in return for support for his party.
Despite the political setback for a key member of the Europe of Nations and Freedom parliamentary group, Le Pen predicted the group “will perform a historic feat, moving from the 8th place in Europe to third or maybe second” among major political groups in the European Parliament.