Italy Corrals Allies to Fight EU. Just Don’t Mention Putin

Italy Corrals Allies to Fight EU. Just Don’t Mention Putin

Deputy Prime Minister Salvini heads to Poland as part his party’s recruitment drive before European elections.

Italy’s nationalist-in-chief is on a recruiting drive for what he calls “the battle of battles.” The first fight will be to unite the troops.

Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini is seeking to forge a Euroskeptic pact ahead of elections to the European Parliament in May and heads to Warsaw on Wednesday for talks with Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of Poland’s governing party. It follows months of Salvini’s emissaries gathering allies across Europe.

But away from the love-in, there are key differences that make any alliance look more superficial than the united front being championed by U.S. President Donald Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon.

Conflict is sure to emerge when true believers – or those who portray themselves as such – confront the compromises politics demands. There are contrasting views on immigrants, the European Union budget and relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, something that Polish newspapers flagged prior to Salvini’s arrival.

The head of the anti-EU League party and the real power behind the Italian government regularly praises the Russian leader. Kaczynski, the eminence grise in Poland, and his loyalists have built a conspiracy around the death of his twin brother, the country’s president at the time. He was killed in an air crash in 2010 on the way back from Russia.

“The problem with uniting populist parties is that they have national agendas which conflict with each other,” said Guntram Wolff, director of the Brussels-based Bruegel think-tank. “Poland is very suspicious of Putin, and Kaczynski is almost paranoid about him.”

Salvini is portraying the European elections as a showdown between the forces he represents and the liberal establishment led by Emmanuel Macron. The French president called nationalism a “betrayal” at November’s World War I armistice commemorations in France, the same weekend that Poland’s leadership was marching through Warsaw with far-right groups.

The European Parliament will have a key role in approving the new European Commission, the EU’s executive, meaning that the contest has the potential to determine the future direction of the continent’s integration project.

Macron’s vision, backed by Germany, is for closer allegiance on such things as defense and national finances. Salvini, Kaczynski, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban Orban and their allies want more, not less, sovereignty over their countries’ affairs. Orban, the standard-bearer for Europe’s populist forces, branded Macron the leader of a “pro-migration”

Salvini, 45, is seeking an alliance with Kaczynski, 69, and a common campaign program, with the aim of forging the second-biggest group in the parliament after the European People’s Party, or EPP, according to a League government member. The person declined to be named when discussing strategy.

Across the EU, League officials have been in similar talks with leaders of far-right groups including France’s Marine Le Pen, Germany’s Alice Weidel of the AfD party, Sweden Democrats chief Jimmie Akesson and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the official said. Orban and his Fidesz Party belong to the EPP group and have clashed with some other members.

In his New Year message on Facebook, Salvini sounded gung-ho last week, proclaiming the European vote “the battle of battles, one of those that happen every hundred years in history.”

In Warsaw, the governing Law & Justice party is ready to listen. “It is too early to talk about coalitions, although we’re not closing any doors,” Zdzislaw Krasnodebski, vice president of the European Parliament for the party, told Polsat News television on Jan. 4. “There is a great need for reforming the EU and changing the balance of power.”

How that might happen, though, is where the differences lie.

Italy wants the EU to enforce quotas for taking in migrants to relieve pressure on the country. East European nations like Poland and Hungary vehemently oppose taking in anyone, with Kaczynski vowing to protect his Catholic country against Muslims and Orban building a metal fence along the border.

Then there’s money. Salvini says Italy should be a net beneficiary of EU funds rather than a net contributor. Poland, the biggest net recipient of European aid, is desperate to keep the status quo and face down threats from France and Germany that money could be tied to upholding the EU’s democratic values.

“Rightist groups in the European Parliament haven’t managed to work well together,” said Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform. “They’re against globalization and free trade. But they’re divided on immigration with parties in western Europe favoring resettlement quotas, and eastern Europeans against them.”

That said, there’s much to unite them in their campaign against the European mainstream. Salvini, who as interior minister will also meet his Polish counterpart Joachim Brudzinski, has clashed with the EU in a long standoff over Rome’s spending plans. He’s also made enemies over his refusal to allow ships carrying migrants rescued in the Mediterranean to dock in Italian ports.

Poland is mired in an unprecedented battle over the rule of law in the country following the Warsaw government’s takeover of parts of the independent judiciary. Poor relations with Europe hit Law & Justice’s showing in October local elections, prompting the party to respond with a new slogan: “Poland -- the beating heart of Europe.”

John Follain and Marek Strzelecki

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