MILAN–Anyone who has followed Matteo Salvini’s unlikely political trajectory from far-right bad boy to far-right statesman knows the man loves an audience. Whether he is posting selfies eating Nutella or posing with zealots, he knows how to work a crowd.
And so it was on Monday morning in Milan, when the leader of the far-right League–a watered down version of the former Northern League separatist party–officially launched his European Parliamentary campaign with a promise to “shake up the European Union.”
“For many Europeans, the E.U. is a nightmare,” Salvini said by way of introduction to the launch. “We hope to change that.”
Salvini hopes to spread the hardline approach that has won him favor in Italy across Europe. In less than a year, Salvini has drastically cut illegal immigration into the country by closing all ports to migrant boats, relaxed gun laws and introduced “shoot first” legislation for self defense. He has brought back a Mussolini-era “baby bonus” for Italians who have more than one child to help reverse Italy’s negative birth rate, tried to limit foreign music on Italian radios, and littered the path to citizenship with obstacles that few can overcome.
He would like to do the same across Europe, making national identity a priority. At his launch on Monday, he was flanked on either side by like-minded leaders of far-right European parties.
“There are no extremists or nostalgics among us,” Salvini said, as he described those who were worried the group represents a return to fascism or Nazism as “snobs from the radical chic Left.”
“There is no bad company at this table,” he said. “The tired debate over Fascists does not interest us. We are looking ahead to the future.”
Jörg Meuthen of Germany’s Alternative for Germany, some of whose members have been called Holocaust deniers, talked about how the rise of the far-right does not mean a return to the country’s dark past. “The Holocaust must never be forgotten,” he said when asked as much, but then added that Germany should no longer dwell on it. He called for a “180-degree turn” when it comes to Germany's continuing atonement for the crimes of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. On the sidelines of the event, he told The Daily Beast he agreed with party member Alexander Gauland who said that the Nazis “are just bird shit in more than 1,000 years of successful German history.”
Like Salvini, Meuthen believes that by taking over the European parliament, the far-right parties can decentralize European decision making and promote nationalism. Never mind that so-called ‘identitarian’ groups that focus on nationalism and shun integration of immigrants have been linked to race baiting and attacks. The attacker in Christchurch, New Zealand, had even donated to an Austrian identitarian party before shooting 50 people in two mosque attacks in March.
Despite the debacle that Brexit negotiations have become, many of the parties in Salvini’s new dream team are also eurosceptics. “Radical changes are needed – more power to our countries and less bureaucracy from Brussels,” Meuthen said, adding when asked if he would push for a Brexit style vote for Germany. “If there are moves towards building a United States of Europe, then we would want to leave.” In Italy, a poll by La Stampa newspaper over the weekend revealed that nearly 50 percent of Italians now favor a referendum vote on whether Italy should stay in the E.U.
Olli Kotro of the Finnish nationalist Finns Party and Anders Vistisen from the Danish People’s Party gushed over Salvini, and in a Trumpesque moment, each one took turns, along with Meuthen, pledging allegiance to the leader who had called them to share his stage. “I can see no finer leader among the candidates for president of the European parliament,” Kotro said when asked if he saw Salvini as the European Parliament’s future president.
Salvini’s far-right bloc is called the Europe of Nations and Freedom, or ENF, and it includes the likes of Austria’s Freedom Party and the Netherlands Party for Freedom. It also includes Marine Le Pen, who was notably absent. Salvini had just seen his soul sister in Paris last week and, when asked why she couldn’t make it to Milan for such an important launch, he said, quite characteristically, “Cazzo!” which is Italian slang for “dick” but is often used when one might say “fuck” on occasions like this.
“Cazzo,” he said, and then repeated it three times. “As I’ve said for the 16th time in a week, I represent all of the members. I speak for the French, the Austrians, the Dutch members, even when they aren’t here.”
Salvini’s dream is to merge his ENF bloc with the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) which includes the Danish People’s Party and the Finns party and the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD), of which the Alternative for Germany party and the newly formed Brexit Party of the UK which is comprised of hardline Brexiteers who are former UKIP Brexit campaigners. Such an alliance between these members would, as Salvini promised, shake the E.U. to its core, especially if they were able to win even a slight majority in the May elections.
The group, which, now that it has launched, will be signing up candidates from across the European Union, hopes to lure Tories if Brexit has not been finalized by May 26 when elections are held. They are also courting fringe far-right parties in Greece and Spain where issues like immigration and austerity are most troubling.
All of the leaders present share the common goal of turning the dream of the United States of Europe into something more of a loosely bound coalition of countries that share the common goals of national identity, national security and border protection.
“We do not want a Europe that redistributes clandestine migrants,” Salvini said. “We want a Europe that does not let them in.” His plan includes bolstering the E.U.’s border control arm called Frontex with 10,000 armed men ready to protect Europe's borders at any cost. Currently, Frontex only conducts air surveillance activities after discontinuing the Sophia program that served as search and rescue. Under the new program, Frontex would act as a defense army on the sea to stop migrants from crossing into Italy, Greece and Spain.
Like Trump in the United States, Salvini constantly refers to migrants trying to enter as terrorists and rapists. When migrants are rescued at sea, he often offers to take the women and children to Italy and then chides them for not accepting if it means leaving their adolescent sons or husbands on board.
He also wants to end definitively any chance of Turkey, which is in the initial stages of E.U. membership vetting, entering the bloc. “Turkey is not in Europe and it never will be,” he said, underscoring that the stance is a non-negotiable tenet of the far-right program. “The accession process should be cancelled. It should be definitively stopped.”
The far-right group also thrives on national identity, a term used several times during the launch. “We will defend ‘made in Europe’,” Salvini said. “But we want to celebrate ‘made in Italy,’ ‘made in Deutschland,’ and ‘made in Austria’ more.” The definition goes on to embrace national heritage, language and cultures. The E.U. is not a melting pot in the eyes of these leaders. It is a very separate union of diverse people.
“The only way to do is through embracing the national state and staying focused,” said Vistisen. “If we let our opposition divide us, we will see more of Europe and more Brussels in all we do.”
Salvini was even more precise. “We are not aiming to lose or just participate in these elections,” he said. “Our goal is to win and change the rules of Europe.”