MILAN — Europe’s far-right sees the collapse of the passport-free Schengen area and the Brexit debate as a golden opportunity for Euroskeptic, anti-immigrant parties to turn their growing popularity into real political power.
Holding its first conference on Thursday and Friday in Milan, a new political group in the European Parliament known as Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) sent a message to “Brussels’ politically correct élite” that the far-right is here to stay.
“Finally Schengen is dead and the European Union is breaking apart,” said Marine Le Pen, whose National Front has support levels of about 29 percent in France, despite losing the second round of elections last December. “Frexit,” she said, was now a distinct possibility.
The ENF, founded in July 2015, is a coalition of 38 MEPs from eight countries, including some where support for the far-right has surged. As well as the National Front, it includes Geert Wilders’ Dutch Freedom Party, Italy’s Northern League, the Freedom Party of Austria and Belgium’s Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest). There are also British, Romanian and Polish members.
Recent election results and opinion polls tend to bear out the ENF’s claims.
The Northern League, led by Matteo Salvini who organized the two-day meeting in Milan, is on an upward trajectory with 16-17 percent support in polls. In Austria, Heinz-Christian Strache’s FPÖ won 31 percent of the vote in a city election last October in Vienna, putting it in second place in a historic stronghold of theSocial Democrats.
The ENF, according to Wilders, wants to “save Europe from itself.”
Predicting that he could be the next prime minister of the Netherlands — and lead it out of the EU in a “Nexit” — Wilders said the people of Europe were “tired of governments that don’t listen to them and of Brussels imposing decisions that are not put under scrutiny.”
Speakers repeatedly referred to the New Year’s Eve wave of sexual assaults on women in Cologne as evidence of the failure of EU migration policies — especially the open-door stance of Chancellor Angela Merkel, which was blamed for the “Islamization” of Europe. Equally, the media was guilty of downplaying events because of its obsession with political correctness, said Le Pen.
He pointed to a decision by Sweden’s center-left government to send home 80,000 asylum seekers on charter flights as proof that politicians across the political spectrum agreed that the wave of migration had to be halted.
The ENF leaders rejected any suggestion that their positions were too hardline for a majority of the European electorate and that this would ultimately keep them out of government.
“The call us the extreme-right. But I say we’re doing the job the unions and the Left should be doing” — Matteo Salvini
“Absolutely not,” said Le Pen. “We’ve been gaining ground election after election over the last year. We started from 4 percent and today we are the first party in France.”
The far-right leaders were critical of what they portrayed as the cosy relationship between EU leaders and the speculative end of the financial industry, and they accused Brussels of failing to protect families and small business. Multinationals were shipping in immigrants as cheap labor, said Salvini.
Echoing Le Pen’s attempts to capture disenchanted left-wing voters in France, he portrayed the new coalition as champions of the working class: “The call us the extreme-right. But I say we’re doing the job the unions and the Left should be doing.”
This article was written for Politico Europe