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Europe’s far-right tries to end divisions

Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini sends texts with smileys to French far-right leader Marine Le Pen and posts selfies with Austrian far-right politician Heinz-Christian Strache.

The face of the leader of Italy’s far-right League party is beamed onto big screens at right-wing rallies from Prague to Sofia.

Buoyed by his own success and voter fatigue with mainstream parties, Salvini is trying to build bridges before elections on May 26 to the European Parliament, the European Union’s legislature.

With the two biggest political blocs expected to lose their combined majority, he and other far-right leaders hope to form an opposition, eurosceptic alliance with enough seats in the assembly to block or hold up legislation.

“Our idea is to come together... into a new party that better reflects the eurosceptical views that unite us,” Salvini’s foreign affairs advisor Marco Zanni said. “Now is our chance to unite forces once and for all.”

But when Salvini starts his campaign for the elections on Monday in Milan, representatives of only three, relatively small far-right European parties will be present. Le Pen will not be there. Nor will representatives of Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party (PiS), which governs Poland.

Salvini promises a much bigger rally next month. But the absence of Le Pen and other leading far-right and nationalist leaders speaks to the policy differences and rivalries that have long stood in the way of unity among such groups.

Far-right leaders share the broad ideological goals of curbing the EU’s perceived liberal course and returning power to the member states’ capitals. But they differ in other areas, and an attempt by US President Donald Trump’s former strategist, Steve Bannon, to act as a power broker among Europe’s populist groups has fizzled.

Investors expect heightened political uncertainty after the May 26 election, in which 705 members of the European Parliament (MEPs) will be elected, or 751 if Britain fails to leave the EU as planned.

General dissatisfaction over slow economic growth, security threats posed by militants and a backlash against migration across open EU borders have boosted support for eurosceptic nationalists in many member states.

“There is a growing confidence of voters to go against the norm,” said Susi Dennison, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The ‘anti- forces’ are much more motivated right now than the pro-Europeans.”

Their gains and Britain’s planned departure from the EU will mean a shake-up of the pan-national groups created by parties in the EU parliament, whose main role is checking and amending EU laws drawn up by the executive European Commission. Salvini’s anti-immigrant League is forecast to more than quadruple its representation in the EU assembly

with 27 seats.

Along with the projected rise for Le Pen’s National Rally and Strache’s Freedom Party of Austria, which is in a coalition government with Strache as vice-chancellor, the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group to which they belong could be boosted to 61 seats from 37. Salvini, whose party co-rules Italy, wants to embrace other leaders whose parties are in rival groups such as Kaczynski.

The two held a meeting in Warsaw in January, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban hailed the prospect of them forming an alliance as one of the greatest developments of this year.

Forming one big political group can also unlock funds and opportunities for patronage.

“They’re going to get much more resources if they’re able to sit together,” said Cas Mudde, an expert on the far-right at the University of Georgia.

But policy differences make it likely that parties critical of the EU will remain divided into at least two groupings, one centred around Salvini and the other around Kaczynski.

Salvini admires Russian President Vladimir Putin - Kaczynski vilifies him. Both are anti-immigration but at odds over how to handle it. Italy is net giver to the EU budget, Poland is a net receiver. — Reuters

Alissa de Carbonnel andGiulia Paravicini

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