Italy’s Salvini stakes out post as Europe’s populist leader

MILAN (AP) — Italy’s anti-migrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini led a rally of right-wing populist leaders on Saturday seeking historic results in next week’s European Parliament elections in their bid to transform European politics.

Salvini, the head of Italy’s right-wing League party, has positioned himself at the forefront of a growing movement of nationalist leaders seeking to free the European Union’s 28 nations from what he called Brussels’ “illegal occupation”.

He pledged to close Europe’s borders to migrants if the League wins not just the most votes of any party in Italy, but also of Europe.

Salvini was joined by 10 other nationalist leaders, including include far-right leaders Marine Le Pen of France’s National Rally party and Joerg Meuthen of the Alternative for Germany party. It was a major tour de force for the expanding movement ahead of the May 23-26 vote that will take place in all 28 EU nations.

Still, most of the tens of thousands of supporters that packed the square outside the central Duomo cathedral in Milan were there for Salvini. League flags filled the square, with a smattering of national flags from other nations.

From left, Geert Wilders, leader of Dutch Party for Freedom, Matteo Salvini, Jörg Meuthen, leader of Alternative For Germany party, Marine Le Pen, Leader of the French National Front, Vaselin Marehki, leader of Bulgarian ‘Volya’ party, Jaak Madison of Estonian Conservative People’s Party, and Tomio Okamura leader of Czech far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy during a rally. – AP

A short distance away, some 2,000 protesters marched to protest the right-wing gathering.

In front of the Duomo, Salvini railed against unchecked migration and decried Islam, saying it mistreated women. He said Turkey would never be a part of Europe and rejected the label of extremists for the leaders with him.

“In this piazza, there are no extremists. There are no racists. There are no fascists. If anything in Italy and in Europe, the difference is between who looks ahead, between who speaks of the future … instead of making trials of the past,” he said.

The far-right and populist leaders in Milan are making one of the strongest challenges to the European status quo in decades, united under an anti-migrant, anti-Islam, anti-bureaucracy banner.