Milan, Italy – On their way to the Piazza del Duomo, thousands of supporters of the League – the party led by Italy‘s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini – marched past a statue wearing a pink scarf on one of the city’s ancient gates, Porta Venezia.
Feminist activists had dressed statues across the city in pink and gold in protest against the gathering.
The demonstrators, who included party supporters from across Italy and some delegations from elsewhere in the European Union, headed to the closing event of Salvini’s campaign for European Parliament elections, scheduled for May 23-26.
Joining Salvini on stage, far-right and nationalist leaders and MPs from 11 countries spelled out their vision for Europe.
They included Marine Le Pen of France’s National Rally (Rassemblement Nationale), Geert Wilders of the anti-Islam Dutch Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid), Jorg Meuthen of the anti-migrant Alternative for Germany (Alternative fur Deutschland or AfD). Slovakia, Austria, Finland and Bulgaria were also represented, among others.
Salvini’s supporters chanted “Italy is our home” and “Free Italy”, as well as “Europe is Christian, not Muslim,” holding up banners with slogans including “Close the ports” and “Italians first”.
“There are no extremists, racists, or fascists here,” Salvini told the crowd during the rally’s closing speech.
“The difference is between those who look ahead, who talk about future and jobs and those who put the past on trial: They are afraid of the past because they don’t have an idea for the future. We’re building the future.”
Salvini also told the crowd that the “Europe of common sense” was gathered in Milan to “free the continent from the illegal occupation orchestrated in Brussels”.
The dream of Europe’s founding fathers, Salvini said, has been betrayed by the “Merkels, the Macrons, the Soroses and the Junckers who built a Europe based on finance and uncontrolled migration”.
Marine Le Pen, whose party is part of the same group as the League in the European Parliament, the Europe of Nations and Freedom, said this was a “historic moment“.
“Our Europe is the daughter of Athens and Rome, of Christianity and the enlightenment,” the French politician told a cheering crowd.
Jorg Meuthen from Germany’s AfD explained the ideas behind this new “Europe of Nations”.
“We are not anti-European as the mainstream always says. On the contrary, we are the true Europeans,” Meuthen said, adding that like-minded parties across Europe were hoping to form a new front in the European Parliament.
“We are the patriots of Europe and we choose freedom,” said Geert Wilders, after reminding the crowd: “we have to stop Islamisation.”
The League is the junior party in a ruling coalition with the Five Star Movement in Italy, but its popularity has surged since coming to power. It is now projected to win the European Parliament elections in Italy next week with around 30 percent of the vote. This would likely make the far-right League the second-largest party in the European Parliament after Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands).
Since coming to power, Salvini has waged a campaign against NGOs working to rescue migrants stranded in the Mediterranean and curbed asylum rights. But arrivals to Italy from war-torn Libya had already slowed considerably after the previous centre-left government helped strengthen the Libyan coastguard and encouraged it to focus on bringing back migrants who embarked on the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.
“Italians must come first. We pay tax, we’re citizens of this country and it is only right that a state must be given back to its citizens. Then to the others, but first to Italians,” Francesco Rienzo, a 30-year-old lawyer at the rally told Al Jazeera. “We have borders and they must be respected.”
Beginning its life as a secessionist party advocating for Northern Italy’s independence, under Salvini the League has refashioned itself with the slogan “Italians first,” winning the vote of southern Italians who had previously been the subjects of the party’s anti-migrant rhetoric.
Last April, Salvini launched a new pan-European group in the European Parliament, the European Alliance of Peoples and Nations (EAPN) alongside Germany’s AfD, with the aim of bringing all likeminded parties together after the elections.
According to the European Council on Foreign Relations, if parties loosely identified as right-wing populists were to be successful in forming a united coalition, it would become the largest group in the European Parliament. But the think-tank also said that 97 million voters across Europe remain undecided.
Far-right and nationalist parties have made strides across Europe since the last European Parliament elections in 2014 and are now in power in Italy, Poland, Hungary and Austria. In other countries, such as France, they are no longer relegated to the fringes.
Analysts have pointed out that these parties are, however, divided both on the ideological and policy level. Northern and southern parties tend to hold different views on the EU’s budget, while Russia is an issue that divides the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland from Salvini and Le Pen who want a closer relationship with Putin.
Viktor Orban – the Hungarian leader whose party Fidesz has been suspended from the centre-right European People’s Party grouping in the European Parliament – was a notable absence at Saturday’s rally. Nevertheless, when asked in a recent interview with the Atlantic who he believed is the “champion” of Europe, Orban responded without hesitation:
“Matteo Salvini. He leads a large country. Europe can sanction a little country like Hungary. It wouldn’t dare go after a country like Italy, with 60 million people. Moreover, Italy has a powerful voice. It is standing firm against the migrants – manning the front line.”
At home, Orban has muzzled the press and civil society and his government has been accused of “starving migrants” stranded on the border, making him the face of “illiberal democracy” in Europe.
A small group of young demonstrators turned up in Duomo square with placards bearing slogans such as “Human beings first” and “We were migrants too”, as well as “Banners disturb public order in Italy, fascism doesn’t.”
They were soon surrounded by a cordon of police in riot gear, while getting a fair amount of insults from some of the rally participants.
“I am not sure if police is here to protect us, seeing as they are facing us,” demonstrator Nicoletta d’Elia told Al Jazeera.
“I’m here because I disagree with Salvini’s ideas, they are against everything I am as a woman from the south,” the 20-year-old student said.
Meanwhile, Milan mobilised against Salvini’s rally with an art show and march organised by the feminist movement Non Una Di Meno (“Not one less”) and anti-racist groups, dubbed the “Gala of the Future.”
“The idea is to avoid that our future be highjacked by the right, especially because this rally we are opposing is international,”Selam Tesfai, one of the movement’s leaders told Al Jazeera.
“These are people who thrive in propaganda, with an obscurantist vision,” she continued. “We’re here united because on the one hand, [their vision] identifies as problems migration, change, and questioning some aspects of our society. On the other hand, attacking women’s rights and strengthening the traditional family are two of the main pillars of their politics.”
White bedsheets with protest messages were unfurled from balconies across the city.
The “protest of the balconies” began when a woman in Brambate, Northern Italy, hung a banner from her home last Monday as Salvini was expected in town for an election rally.
When the banner, which read “You’re not welcome,” was taken down by the local fire department, it sparked outrage with hundreds of people across Italy displaying similar messages in solidarity.