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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 April 2019

Salvini says new anti-immigration EU group aims to ‘save Europe’

Representatives of far-right parties officially announced their intention to form a united European group

Left to right, Olli Kotro, a candidate for the Finns, Joerg Meuthen, co-leader of Alternative for Germany (AfD), Matteo Salvini, Italy's deputy prime minister, and Anders Vistisen, candidate for the Danish People's Party, pose for a photograph during the launch of an alliance of nationalist parties to take on the European Parliament elections, in Milan, Italy, on Monday, April 8, 2019. Bloomberg
Left to right, Olli Kotro, a candidate for the Finns, Joerg Meuthen, co-leader of Alternative for Germany (AfD), Matteo Salvini, Italy's deputy prime minister, and Anders Vistisen, candidate for the Danish People's Party, pose for a photograph during the launch of an alliance of nationalist parties to take on the European Parliament elections, in Milan, Italy, on Monday, April 8, 2019. Bloomberg

Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said the European project has now become a “nightmare” for many citizens as he launched a EU alliance of far-right parties at a press conference in Milan on Monday.

Taking part in the event were also Jörg Meuthen of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, Anders Vistisen of the Danish People's Party and Olli Kotro of the Finns Party.

The event was branded a "flop" by some Italian politicians, who remarked that the low turnout was an indication of the divides that still exist among far-right Europeans parties.

Mr Salvini rebuffed the claims using expletives when asked about the absence of other far-right leaders including Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Rally. “Today I am representing all of the members of Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF),” he said, referring to the smallest political group in the European Parliament, comprised of MPs from Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, the UK and Italy.

A spokesperson for Marine Le Pen confirmed to The National that Mr Salvini was speaking on behalf of the far-right leader at the conference, as well as other members of the group (ENF).

Mr Salvini said the new European “house” will aim to rally parties from all 27 member states – or 28, should the UK still be in the European Union in May – and capitalise on shared principles and common goals.

The four representatives present at Monday’s rally all expressed their desire to zero in on illegal immigration and secure the borders to “protect the European identity.”

“The European Union makes sense if it recognises the different ideologies, cultures and identities. Otherwise it becomes the nightmare we are living in today,” Mr Salvini said, adding that Frontex – the EU border agency – should be used to rescue migrants and then repatriate them.

He did not elaborate on how that could be done in accordance to the Refugee Convention and the principle of non-refoulement.

Mr Meuthen, Federal spokesman for the German Alternative for Germany (AfD), said the objective was to create a “European fort” that will allow access to migrants only in limited numbers and through legal means.

He cited Mr Salvini – who is facing accusation of “kidnapping” in his home country after refusing to let migrants on NGO rescue boats disembark in Italy – as the proof that stopping illegal immigration is a matter of political will.

The Finns Party representative, Mr Kotro, said his movement stands against “an idea of multi-culturalism that is destroying Europe”.

Mr Salvini rebuffed criticism that the creation of the common platform, named "European Alliance of People and Nations", may embolden violent far-right groups. Asked about the Christchurch attacks that killed 50 people in New Zealand and whether their ideology resembles that of the mass shooter, Mr Salvini said: “if there are thugs and criminals who are coward and racist and who use left-wing or right-wing ideas, their place is in in jail.”

He argued that far-right extremism is limited and that those who “shed blood” belong to other groups.

The Interior Minister, who also serves as deputy Prime Minister, said that Turkey has no place in Europe and that its application to enter the bloc should have been annulled, rather than put on hold.

Asked about whether his party is nostalgic of Italy’s bleak fascist era, Mr Salvini said such claims must be dismissed. “Nazism and fascism will not come back – we are and will remain democracies and the rights that we have gained will remain rights enjoyed by everyone,” he said.

Civil liberties groups, however, have reported an increase in racially motivated crimes fuelled by the anti-immigration agenda promoted by these parties.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel voiced strong criticism of the AfD after foreign-looking citizens were attacked at far-right rallies in the eastern German city Chemnitz. AfD co-leader Alexander Gauland condemned the negative depiction of protesters and described the majority of them as "concerned citizens."

Hungary and Poland, two countries where the parties Mr Salvini is courting have been voted into power, were accused by humanitarian watchdogs of cracking down on civil liberties. According to Freedom House, government practices in Hungary have “curtailed the ability of the opposition to freely and meaningfully participate in the formal political system”.

In Poland, the same organisation found the socially conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party to have enacted “numerous measures that increase political influence over state institutions—notably the judiciary—and threaten Polish democracy.”

Whether Mr Salvini’s will succeed in getting these two parties to support his political project, however, remains to be seen. One of the main points of contention is the attitude vis-à-vis Russia.

The Italian firebrand has been critical of EU sanctions against Russia, which he sees as damaging the Italian economy. Poland and Hungary vilify Russia and will likely refuse to be part of a coalition that cultivates a close relationship with its president, Vladimir Putin.

Mr Salvini said the issue will be debated internally among all members interested in joining the group. By the time Europe goes to the polls, he said he expected at least 10 parties to have joined the group.

“We are setting big goals: saving Europe,” he said. “Our objective is to be the biggest group in the EU, one that includes parties from every single member state.”

Updated: April 8, 2019 08:16 PM

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