ROME – The leader of the right-wing party in Italy's populist government told tens of thousands of supporters Sunday he wants to turn next year's European Parliament election into a referendum on immigration and job security.
Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini also laid out at his League party's annual gathering a vision of uniting the political movements in several European countries that say they want to prevent national interests from being eclipsed by European Union agendas.
"I am thinking of a League of Leagues that will put together all the free, sovereign movements" in various countries, Salvini said at the event held in sweltering heat in Pontida, northern Italy.
He has good rapport with French far-right leader Marine Le Pen and British politician Nigel Farage, who lobbied for the referendum that resulted in Britain voting to leave the European Union.
Salvini said the 2019 election for the EU's legislature should be tantamount to a "referendum between the elite, the banks, finance, immigration and job security and the Europe of the peoples and of work."
The League has long railed against EU strictures on national spending and has expressed skepticism about whether it's worth it for Italy to remain in the euro currency zone.
"The happiness of a people comes first," Salvini proclaimed, drawing rousing cheers from League rank-and-file.
Salvini asked rally attendees if they would "swear, yes or no, to liberate the peoples from this Europe."
"Yes!" came the resounding reply from the crowd.
Since taking office in Italy's month-old coalition government, Salvini has made good on a campaign pledge to crack down on humanitarian groups that rescue migrants from smugglers' boats in the Mediterranean Sea and then ferry the asylum-seekers to Italian ports.
Several hundred thousand of the rescued passengers, many of them economic migrants ineligible for asylum, have flooded Italy in the last few years.
Salvini announced Saturday that Italy was refusing to allow a rescue ship to dock in an Italian port, the third such denial in three weeks.
Spain stepped in to offer safe harbor, and the vessel operated by Spanish aid group Proactiva Open Arms is headed to Barcelona.
"Today, there's a third ship that will head to another country, and there will also be a fourth and a fifth and so on," Salvini told his cheering supporters at Sunday's rally.
He reiterated his stance that "the doors of Italy will be wide open for women and children who flee war," but "for the others, no."
The League is junior partner in the coalition government with the anti-EU 5-Star Movement. In the weeks since, League candidates have triumphed in a series of mayoral elections, sometimes at the expense of the 5-Stars.
A survey of eligible voters published in Saturday's Corriere della Sera newspaper found support for the League polling at 31.2 percent, compared to the Movement's 29.8 percent.
A prominent 5-Star figure, Roberto Fico, who is president of Parliament's lower Chamber, has opposed Salvini's policy of denying ports to humanitarian rescue boats.
Salvini said Sunday that was Fico's "personal opinion." Similarly dismissing any talk of a coalition rift was 5-Star leader Luigi Di Maio, who, like Salvini, serves as deputy premier.
Salvini has transformed the League from a north-based regional movement into a national force, attracting anti-migrant voters in the south, a region the party once denigrated as an unproductive drain on national coffers.