Italy’s Salvini eyes international right-wing alliance after European Parliament victory

Italian nationalist leader Matteo Salvini, having secured a major win for his League in the European Parliament elections last week, is eyeing an international alliance of nationalists and right-wingers to challenge Brussels -- although it’s not yet clear how many in other countries will bite.

Salvini, who serves as deputy prime minister and interior minister in Italy’s coalition government, is reveling in his party’s win in the E.U. elections -- where the League became one of the biggest parties in Europe by taking a third of the Italian vote.

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“First party in Italy, thank you,” Salvini said in a sign posted to Twitter. Items behind him include an image of Jesus Christ and a “Make America Great Again” Trump campaign hat.

League, which as recently as two years ago was a minor player in Italian politics, has seen its fortunes soar with its hardline policies, particularly on immigration. It was rewarded with its place in the coalition government with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement after the general election last year, and has seen its support continue to rise in polls since.

Salvini has overshadowed both Five Star coalition counterpart Luigi Di Maio and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte as he has waged a public battle against the E.U. and the courts, pushing back against rescue ships seeking to drop off rescued African migrants from the Mediterranean on Italian shores.

He has delighted his supporters with his unapologetic, combative style. At a rally in Giulianova in February, a protester called him “a sh***y murderer,” and Salvini responded by calling for a round of applause for the man’s “precious contribution.”

“A round of applause for the gentleman, who has won 10 migrants for his house,” he said, promising that if the protester gave his name and financial details that he “can take care of them, breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

His public spat with French President Emmanuel Macron has helped sow his reputation abroad as one of the continent’s top nationalist voices, and now he is seeking to build on that by reaching out to European allies and creating a bloc that can challenge the status quo in the European Parliament.

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Salvini created the Europe of Nations and Freedom parliamentary bloc last month. So far he has managed to bring in leaders of allied right-wing parties in France, Germany and the Netherlands. As a bloc they can claim 58 seats in the 751 seat Parliament.

League’s 28 seats are particularly strengthened by those of the French National Rally’s 22 seats. The Rally, led by Marine Le Pen, nudged out Macron’s En Marche to become the biggest holder of seats from France.

Interior Minister and Deputy Premier Matteo Salvini arrives for a press conference at the League's headquarters, in Milan, Italy, Monday, May 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

Interior Minister and Deputy Premier Matteo Salvini arrives for a press conference at the League's headquarters, in Milan, Italy, Monday, May 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

But in order to keep moving toward the 100-150 seats he wants his bloc to hold, Salvini will need to reach out to right-wingers from other countries, particularly in the U.K. and Hungary.

In the U.K. Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, formed only this year, stormed to victory in the U.K., picking up more than a third of the vote amid anger over the Conservative Party’s handling of Britain’s departure from the E.U. Prime Minister Theresa May resigned the morning after the election, and Farage has promised that the Brexit Party will keep up the pressure until Britain leaves the bloc.

But Farage’s party is an unlikely long-term ally for Salvini. Not only has there been little public contact between the two, Farage has presented his party as a transitory party that has a single-issue focus of getting Britain out of the E.U. altogether. The Brexit Party is therefore unlikely to want a parliamentary alliance, or to play ball on other E.U. issues.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has so far given no indication that his dominant Fidesz Party is joining Salvini’s bloc, but the party was kicked out of the mainstream right-wing European People’s Party (EPP) in March and a visit by Salvini to Budapest saw the two nationalists looking very friendly together.

The Associated Press reported that Salvini got pre-election pledges from the Finns Party and Danish People’s Party, and is eyeing parties in the Czech Republic, Sweden and Spain. But so far they have not joined on.

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Meanwhile at home, Salvini is wasting no time in using the win for political advantage at home. On Tuesday he presented his party’s plan for a flat tax, that would bring in two rates of taxation for Italians.

“I think Italians gave me and the government a mandate to completely, calmly and constructively re-discuss the parameters that led to unprecedented job instability, unemployment and anxiety,” he told reporters in Milan, according to Bloomberg.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.