- - Sunday, April 7, 2019

ROME — Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini has been knocking on doors, trying to drum up support for an unprecedented meeting of the minds of Europe’s right-wing, euroskeptic, anti-immigrant parties movement ahead of European parliamentary elections next month.

That strategy could take a giant leap forward as Mr. Salvini, head of Italy’s populist right-wing League party, hosts like-minded leaders from across the continent in Milan starting Monday to prepare for what they hope will be a watershed vote.

“They are calling me to get involved,” he said, referring to Europe’s far-right leaders who he hopes will attend the Milan gathering, called “Towards a Europe of Common Sense.”

“We are at the front of this European wave. It will cover the continent,” the pugnacious Mr. Salvini, considered one of the most powerful figures in Italy’s populist coalition government, told reporters.

The European Parliament is not seen as one of the world’s great deliberative bodies, and its powers are modest. But it has become a genuine ideological battlefield for the liberal and populist movements contending for power across Europe. Mr. Salvini’s campaign is an explicit challenge to the center-left and center-right blocs that have long dominated the proceedings in the body.

Populist and far-right parties have scored breakthrough electoral wins in countries across Europe, taking power in countries such as Hungary, Austria and Italy. Parties riding the backlash against immigration and the dominance of EU bureaucrats in Brussels also have shifted the center of political gravity even when not holding power, in countries from Britain, France and Germany to the Netherlands and Spain.

Mr. Salvini also hopes to smooth out policy differences — such as over European relations with Russia — while coordinating a message that he thinks will lead to genuine clout after the May 23-26 parliamentary vote.

“We can do more together than apart,” Mr. Salvini said.

It’s not clear whether the reality will match his ambitions, with many invitees still unconfirmed. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban of the conservative Fidesz party and Marine Le Pen, head of France’s far-right National Rally, have said they wouldn’t attend, and it’s not clear whether they will send representatives.

“After the European elections, in Fidesz we’ll decide what is best for Hungary: whether we should continue within the [current center-right parliamentary bloc] or whether our place is instead in some kind of new party alliance,” Mr. Orban said last month.

The regrets coming in from high-profile European populists have some of Mr. Salvini’s rivals crowing that the meeting won’t live up to the hype.

The absences “show the political flop of the League’s European project,” said Laura Ferrara. The member of the European Parliament from the Five Star movement, Mr. Salvini’s uneasy coalition partner, told the British newspaper The Telegraph last week, “Even Le Pen has ditched her ally.”

The Alternative for Germany (AfD), a 6-year-old party that is now the largest opposition party in the Bundestag, has said it will send representatives to Milan.

Mr. Salvini’s attempts to unite like-minded right-wing movements in Europe are coming on the heels of a meeting last year in France hosted by Ms. Le Pen. Still, Mr. Salvini’s visit to Warsaw this year to meet with Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of the Law and Justice party, has given the push for unity more impetus.

Transformed landscape

The far right is already expected to do well in the upcoming vote. A recent European Parliament poll projects that allied conservative parties would increase by a total of 10% to 14% in parliament after the vote.

Analysts say the European political landscape has been transformed since the last time EU voters went to the polls in 2014, when the United Kingdom headed for the exits and conservative parties scored striking gains.

Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland and Sweden join Italy as countries where such parties are showing double-digit gains in support compared with five years ago. But some are skeptical of Mr. Salvini’s dream of a united conservative front.

AfD head Joerg Meuthen said that while he expects right-wing gains, he doesn’t expect more unity among the far right in Europe.

“I expect that conservative forces will be clearly strengthened in the elections and that social democratic forces will be heavily weakened …,” Mr. Meuthen told Die Welt newspaper. “But while [the parties] have the same or similar positions on migration policy, they have very different views in other areas.”

Ms. Le Pen of France, meanwhile, who has backed an alliance in the past with Mr. Salvini, predicts that the election will cause a disruption within the EU, whether the unity push works or not.

The EU “will be upset by this powerful upswing,” she said recently.

The vote within the bloc — 28 members — will be the first without the U.K., which analysts said was the first major sign of the wave of populism with its Brexit vote three years ago. Furious debates between London and Brussels over a proposed extension of the Brexit deadline have left it uncertain whether British voters will participate in the May EU elections or not.

But this year is almost certain to bring the largest wholesale rejection of the European political status quo since the European Union was founded more than 60 years ago.

“At this point, I am worried but not alarmed,” said William A. Galston, author of the recent book “Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy.” “I will be much more concerned if countries begin to abandon the liberal democratic model.”

Mr. Galston said the right-wing populists’ electoral success is clearly eroding the influence and strength of traditional center-left parties that have dominated European politics for generations. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the last remaining European leader from that tradition, and she announced late last year that she would step down when her term ends in 2021.

In Italy, by contrast, polls show that Mr. Salvini’s euroskeptic party has more than doubled its support since the general election last year, winning five regional elections.

Defenders of the globalist, liberal order long promoted in Brussels acknowledge the populist rebellion — seen in both the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s upset victory in 2016 — holds a lesson for European politicians of all ideological stripes.

“The worst-case scenario still involves less trade, less wealth, a less united European policy and more political disorder,” said Antonello Folco Biagini, a historian with Rome’s La Sapienza University.

Antonio Villafranca, research coordinator and head of the European program with the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, said it’s difficult to condemn clear currents of discontent and alienation from large swaths of the European electorate.

“I think we’re going to see more conflicts within Europe. The European Union will likely be weakened,” he said. “But it is hard to complain. This is what people have been voting for. It would be anti-democratic to ignore it.”

Jabeen Bhatti in London and Eros Banaj in Berlin contributed to this report.

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