Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and leader of the far-right League, has led European nationalists in a theatrical mass rally in Milan, in which he condemned mainstream leaders for having “betrayed the founding fathers” of Europe.
The rally, attended by France’s Marine Le Pen, the Alternative for Germany party and nationalist leaders from another 10 European countries, was intended as a show of force ahead of European parliamentary elections on May 23 to May 26. Nationalists are seeking significant gains in those polls to push for changes to European fiscal, security and banking rules.
Before thousands of flag-waving supporters and scores of riot police, who blocked protesters from a rival anti-fascist march from entering the rain-soaked square, Mr Salvini positioned himself as the leader of a new wave of European ethno-nationalists.
“Change in Europe is coming from Milan, from Italy,” he said to cheers.
Still, the timing of the event, which Ms Le Pen had said was “historic” for European nationalists, was overshadowed by a scandal in Austria, where the far-right vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache was forced to resign over a video showing him offering lucrative government contracts in exchange for political support.
Mr Salvini ignored the scandal and, in a sign that the 46-year old is seeking to broaden his appeal in Europe, the divorced father of two presented himself as a defender of traditional Catholicism.
To the soundtrack of Giacomo Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” (“No one sleeps”) the erstwhile theme tune of Italy’s national football team, Mr Salvini concluded his speech by holding up a white rosary and calling on “the heart of the Immaculate Virgin to bring us to victory”.
Mr Salvini is expected to emerge a big winner from next week’s elections with polls predicting his hard-right League will win 31 per cent of the vote and 25 seats, surging from 6 per cent and 5 seats in 2014, and overtaking his government coalition party Five Star as Italy’s most popular.
Like other Europopulists he has toned down his public opposition to the euro. The main targets of his speech on Saturday were mainstream leaders Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron and the liberal billionaire George Soros, who he said had “betrayed Europe, and the dream of the founding fathers, of De Gaulle and De Gasperi”.
“Merkel, Macron, Soros, Juncker have built a Europe of finance and uncontrolled immigration,” he said. On the stage was a large sign in red and white which read “No! Bureaucrats, Bankers, Boats”
In a new turn for his campaign, Mr Salvini, who is facing accusations from opponents that he has links to the Italian mafia, which he denies, also praised murdered anti-mafia lawyer Giovanni Falcone.
Mr Salvini had aimed to bring 100,000 people to the rally. Police on the scene suggested the number was lower. And rather than being a pan-European crowd, most who attended appeared to be from the local League heartland around Milan and northern Italy.
Marco Montanari, 29, from nearby Piacenza carrying a flag which said “Salvini Premier” said that Mr Salvini’s appeal lay in his tough stand on immigration and his Euroscepticism. “I am critical about the euro. It has benefited only the Germans and damaged Italy,” he said.