New far-right coalition forms before European Parliament vote

The transnational alliance of far-right groups includes parties from Italy, Finland, Germany and Denmark.

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    The EU parliamentary bloc will be called the European Alliance for People and Nations [Alessandro Garofalo/Reuters]
    The EU parliamentary bloc will be called the European Alliance for People and Nations [Alessandro Garofalo/Reuters]

    Four far-right nationalist parties plan to form a new group in the European Parliament after next month's elections, their officials have announced, as they called other like-minded movements to join the alliance.  

    Italy's interior minister and co-deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, is spearheading efforts to constitute the new group, which will be called the European Alliance of People and Nations. Salvini is the leader of the anti-migrant League party whose popularity has shot up after it formed a government with the Five Star Movement (M5S) last year. 

    A press conference held in the Italian city of Milan on Monday under the slogan "for a common-sense Europe," saw the participation of Jorg Meuthen, leader of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which is currently the third-largest group in the Bundestag, the German parliament.

    Other participants were the anti-migrant Finns party of Finland, which did not send its leader, but candidate Olli Kotro, and Anders Vistisen, an MEP of the anti-Islam Danish People's Party.

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    "We are working towards a new European dream," Salvini told journalists in Milan, adding that the League is doing so "with movements which are alternatives to those that have ruled Europe in the past decades."

    "From today, this family aims to expand and include movements we have not collaborated with before," the League leader continued. "We aim to finally be in government as a force for change in Europe. Some of the issues are common: the control of borders and the fight against terrorism," Salvini said.

    'A fortress Europe'

    AfD's Meuthen said the new group aimed at uniting "right-wing, nationalist forces" in the European Parliament and to "reform Europe without destroying it".

    "If we want to hold on to our rich heritage, then we must create a fortress Europe," said Meuthen, whose party has been accused of denying the Holocaust and put under special surveillance by Germany's domestic intelligence agency.

    Meuthen hailed Salvini for the work he has done so far in preventing refugees and migrants from arriving on Europe's shores. 

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    Kotro, of the Finns party, added that the group was working "against the ideology of multiculturalism which is destroying Europe, particularly political Islam", while Andersen said "the national identity of 27 European countries" was "at risk".

    It is not yet clear whether the bloc's 28th member state - the UK - will participate in the elections as the country continues to grapple with the process of leaving the European Union. British Prime Minister Theresa May is seeking an extension to the deadline for departure, which could force the UK to take part in the vote on May 23-26.

    If it does participate, the UK could provide an additional contingent of Eurosceptic MEPs to the European Parliament.

    Concerns over migration helped fuel the rise of far-right nationalist parties in Europe [File: Yara Nardi/Italian Red Cross via Reuters]

    Web of alliances

    European parties have formed a number of cross-national groups in the European Parliament. Italy's League is currently a member of the anti-EU, nationalist bloc Europe of Nations and Freedoms (ENF), alongside France's National Rally and Austria's Freedom Party. 

    Group alliances can shift and Eurosceptic parties can currently be found in four different European parliamentary groups.

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    These include the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy, whose head is former UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage - seen as one of the architects of Brexit - which also contains the AfD. 

    The Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe (ACRE) counts Poland's Law and Justice (PiS) party in its ranks, while the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), the largest in the European Parliament, includes several pro-European conservatives and Hungary's anti-migrant Fidesz. Prime Minister Viktor Orban's party was partially suspended from the group in late March. 

    Rise of the League

    Salvini said he had no plans to put himself forward as a Spitzenkandidat (lead candidate), but was eager to emphasise that the initiative had originated in Italy. He has also previously called for right-wing nationalists parties across Europe to rally in Italy on May 18.

    But while populist far-right parties share a common focus on sovereignty and Euroscepticism, as well as anti-migrant and anti-Islam views, they clash over other issues such as the state's role in the economy, ties with Russia and the redistribution of refugees arriving on Europe's southern shores.

    Since forming a government with the anti-establishment M5S last year, the League has overtaken its senior coalition partner in the polls. According to the European Parliament's own projections, the League is en route to becoming the second-largest party in the parliament after May's vote, behind Germany's ruling centre-right CDU/CSU party.

    Salvini's League is now polling ahead of its coalition partners [File: Yara Nardi/Reuters]

    However, while right-wing populists are likely to gain ground in the upcoming election, their influence will find a number of obstacles, according to Carlo Ruzza, a professor of political sociology at the University of Trento's School of International Studies. 

    "The main limitations lie in their ideology itself. Putting the nation first ... will make it difficult to form alliances and there are fundamental tensions in their coalition," Ruzza said, adding that the two main centrist groups, which have traditionally called the shots in the European Parliament, alongside the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), would keep the influence of right-wing populists in the European Parliament in check.

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    "The very creation of the group can be counterproductive in the first place: opening up to the AfD means that Orban will think twice before leaving the EPP because the group in the making could be quite large and also very extreme," Ruzza added.

    On the other hand, as the European elections are fought at the national level, Salvini is "selling a package" to Italians. 

    "His objective remains to further erode the electorate of [former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's] Forza Italia and perhaps that of the M5S, too," Ruzza argued. 

    "He's well-accepted and liked by the far-right, but he tries to avoid communicating that too clearly to the rest of Italians for fear it could be detrimental."

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