Want a sign of the times? Look no further than the photos from the recent meeting between Matteo Salvini and Marine Le Pen at the headquarters of the UGL, the Italian right-wing union that moved in 2014 to Via delle Boteghe Oscure, just a few blocks away from what was the historical headquarters of the Italian Communist Party.
But while their alliance in the past might have ended up on the society pages, nowadays it is hard news as they vie for actual power. This has sparked the interest—and worry—of European observers.
With his profile rising as a result of the “political laboratory” of the yellow-green government, building on his role as vice-prime minister and on recent polls where the Lega commands over 30 percent support, Salvini has gradually carved out for himself the role of a possible leader for the new right-wing movements across the continent, on the basis of a shared anti-system ethos.
The conference was organized by the UGL, which joined the bandwagon of the reinvented Lega a long time ago, as the general secretary of the union, Paolo Capone, was already campaigning with Salvini against the Ius Soli last December and is considered one of the architects of the Lega’s gains in the center-south and in the capital. The conference was given an ambitious title: “Economic growth and social perspectives in a Europe of nations.” But in the end it was little more than an opportunity for Salvini to launch the so-called “Freedom Front” along with Le Pen, marking a very early start to the electoral campaign for the European Parliament elections next May. As Salvini stated with his usual modesty, this is intended to be “a project for the next 30 years.”
“We share the same ideas about Europe, labor and immigration. And we are against the enemies of Europe, who are Juncker and Moscovici, holed up in the Brussels bunker,” said the Italian vice-prime minister.
For her part, Le Pen, the leader of the Rassemblement National—the re-branded National Front that is trying to broaden its appeal—echoed him: “We are aiming to replace the alliance between the EPP and the PES in Brussels. Together with Salvini, we are fighting not against Europe, but against the EU, to build a Europe based on new values: against globalization.” This is an important clarification, showing that they still haven’t abandoned the possibility of exiting the Eurozone. They are leaving open the possibility of an unprecedented alliance with the EPP, along the lines of what is already happening in Vienna with the Austrian FPÖ—a fellow member of the Europe of Nations and Freedoms group in the European Parliament, together with the Lega and Le Pen’s RN.
While a little over 20 years ago it was Jean-Marie Le Pen who took the lead with his “Le français d’abord” (“The French first!”), now we are witnessing a silent passing of the baton: Salvini is now being taken as the model to imitate, to the point that his image can be seen everywhere at meetings of the far-right parties across the Alps.
The Lega leader played to his base as always, throwing barbs in a tone somewhere between jocular and aggressive: “The meeting between Saviano and Macron? How sad, birds of a feather stick together,” he casually remarked, adding, with his customary tact: “I just hope that they didn’t take a naked selfie together, like Macron has of late.” From Paris, Castaner, the leader of En Marche, hit back immediately: “Salvini and Le Pen? They’ve been in the European Parliament from 2004 to 2017. What have they accomplished for Europe? Zero.”
However, behind the apparent concord just exhibited in Rome, there are quite a few obstacles in the path of their planned conquest of Europe, even between Salvini and Le Pen themselves. While the former doesn’t exclude “common candidates“ and possible common leadership, the latter seems to be jealously guarding the national prerogatives on the French side. Even more, bringing together all the “sovereignist” groups, as was proposed, would mean enticing them away from their various parliamentary groups in Brussels. But it is hard to believe, for instance, that Hungarian Prime Minister Orban, the European champion of the barbed-wire policy against migrants, would ever leave the EPP.
Another one of the hypotheses floated, that of choosing the Swedish Jimmie Akesson as a common candidate, would also be difficult to achieve: his Sweden Democrats are already part of the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group in Brussels, together with the parliamentarians from the 5 Star Movement, Salvini’s partners in government. Furthermore, the name of Paolo Savona, touted by the Lega, hasn’t garnered much support from possible European allies. They might be “united,” then, but to each his own.
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