Italy's Deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini, has launched what amounts to a "Make Europe Great Again" campaign, in an attempt to unite far-right political parties across the continent ahead of parliamentary elections next month.
“For many Europeans, the EU (European Union) is a nightmare,” he told reporters after the leaders of some of Europe's far-right parties met in Milan on Monday to form an alliance called “Towards a Europe of Common Sense.”
The group hopes to form a majority bloc in the European Parliament, following elections from May 23 to 26.
“We are ready to take on Europe,” Salvini told reporters and supporters in Milan, the city where his party was, until recently, based.
Notably missing from the meeting were France's National Front party leader Marine Le Pen, whom Salvini met in Paris on Thursday, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Le Pen's spokesman, Alain Vizier, said in a statement that she was “busy with her election campaign.”
When asked why Le Pen did not attend the conference, Salvini said: “I represent the whole (Europe of Nations and Freedom) ENF group,” he said. “I speak for the French, the Austrians, the Dutch members.”
Jörg Meuthen, co-president of Germany's far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, was at the meeting, along with Olli Kotro, head of the Finns Party (ECR), and Anders Vistisen from the Danish People's Party.
Their objectives center on Salvini's hardline approach to migration from North Africa. In June 2018, Salvini made good on a campaign promise to close Italy's ports – which had seen more than 600,000 migrants and refugees enter the country since 2012 – to rescue boats.
“The goal is not to redistribute those who enter Europe clandestinely,” Salvini said. “We have a platform to protect our borders and national identities.”
Among the alliance's aims is a plan to bolster the European Union's border protection agency, Frontex, by as many as 10,000 people.
“Europe is lacking behind on both national security and immigration. European Union security must have a higher priority than in the past,” Vistisen from the Danish People's Party said during the meeting.
Steve Bannon, U.S. President Donald Trump's former White House chief strategist, has been vocal in his support for Salvini, meeting him in Italy last September.
On a recent trip to Rome, Bannon said Italy was especially important in the global power struggle.
“It's the center of the universe because of, really, the rise of Salvini and what Salvini means for Europe and what he means as a political figure for the world,” Bannon told journalists at a press conference in Rome last month.
Bannon is one of the founders of a group he calls The Movement, a far-right organization based in Brussels that provides support to European right-wing nationalist parties, including Salvini's party.
Salvini has kept his distance – at least in public – but often uses the same rhetoric as Bannon against globalists, Brussels and the “elite.”
Bannon said all eyes were on the European elections, and on Salvini and other European nationalist parties’ possible victory. “I just think there is real momentum,” he told CNN, following strong performances by right-wing parties in southern Italy and the Netherlands.
There is “real momentum on the populist nationalist side, a sovereignty movement,” Bannon said. “I think people are coming to this cause and I think it is going to have tremendous support.”
Salvini's party, the League (formerly known as the Northern League), is already part of the ENF coalition in the European Parliament. But Salvini and other members are hoping to increase their number of seats to give them a greater voice in European affairs.
The League has enjoyed considerable success in recent regional elections in Italy; opinion polls suggest it has a lead over its coalition partner, the Five Star Movement (M5S).
In recent polls, Salvini's party has not run with the Five Star Movement, headed by the party's charismatic 32-year-old leader, Luigi Di Maio, who shares the title of Deputy Prime Minister and is also Italy's Economic Development and Labor Minister.
Nadia Urbinati, a political science professor at Columbia University, says part of Salvini's success has been his visible role as Italy's Interior Minister, which allows him to campaign while on the job — particularly on the issues of migration and national security.
“He can strengthen his popularity on immigrants and by using arguments of security in order to appear he is acting in favor of the Italian public,” Urbinati says. “So, showing himself that he is doing his politics is quick, easy and costless.”
The League's regional election campaign focused on nationalist, populist and anti-migrant rhetoric. Salvini has spearheaded a series of anti-immigrant policies and has implemented law and order measures reminiscent of Italy's fascist past, such as dismantling migrant and Roma camps.