Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini is leading an effort to create a pan-European populist alliance to challenge the pro-European establishment over the future of the European Union. The aim is to reclaim sovereignty from unelected bureaucrats in Brussels and transfer key EU powers back to national capitals.
Germany and France, the self-appointed guardians of European integration, are responding to the challenge with an ambitious counterplan to make the European Union a "more decisive power on the world stage."
The showdown, which threatens to split the European Union down the middle between Eurosceptic nationalists and Europhile globalists, will heat up in coming weeks and months, ahead of elections for the European Parliament in late May 2019.
During a visit to Warsaw on January 9, Salvini, now the most powerful politician in Italy, said that populists from Italy and Poland should spark a "European spring" and forge a "new equilibrium" to replace the influence of Germany and France in the European Parliament:
"The Europe that will be created in June will be different from the one of today, which is managed by bureaucrats. In Europe, one has always spoken of a French-German axis. We are preparing for a new equilibrium and a new energy in Europe. There will be a joint action plan that will infuse Europe with new blood, new strength, new energy. Poland and Italy will be the protagonists of this new European spring, this revival of true European values, with less bureaucracy and more work and more family, and above all more security."
Salvini is trying to create a new political bloc — dubbed the "alliance of sovereignists" (alleanza di sovranisti) — that incorporates nationalists and populists from across Europe to contest the upcoming elections for the European Parliament. The objective is to reassert national sovereignty by changing the political composition of the European Parliament, and by extension the EU's executive, the European Commission, and eventually the European Council, where national leaders make the most important EU decisions.
Members of the supranational European Parliament organize themselves into ideological groups as in national legislatures. There currently are eight political groups in the European Parliament. The largest is the center-right European People's Party (of which German Chancellor Merkel's Christian Democratic Union is a key pillar), followed by Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). The recent decision by French President Emmanuel Macron's political party, En Marche, to join ALDE could potentially make it the second largest bloc in the European Parliament, up from the fourth currently, after the May elections.
In Poland, Salvini met with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, Interior Minister Joachim Brudziński and Jarosław Kaczyński, the powerful leader of the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party, which currently is part of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group. The ECR potentially faces collapse when its 18 British Conservative party Members of European Parliament (MEPs) depart after Brexit; this would leave the PiS without a grouping in the European Parliament. The PiS is unlikely to join the European People's Party because Poland's main opposition party, the Civic Platform, is part of that grouping. As a result, the new Salvini-led group could be an attractive option for the PiS.
Salvini has already persuaded French and Dutch populist parties — Marine Le Pen's National Rally (formerly known as National Front) and Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom — to join. If PiS and Austria's ruling Freedom Party were to come on board, Salvini's eurosceptic alliance could have up to 150 MEPs. This would make it the third largest group in the European Parliament and give it tangible power to influence EU legislation.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's party Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Alliance) continues to be part of the European People's Party, which has resisted calls to expel Orbán for his eurosceptic and anti-immigration views. Orbán's spokesman Zoltan Kovacs hailed Salvini's plans to create a populist alliance:
"The Warsaw-Rome axis is a great development to which great hopes are linked. I would like Europe to have a political force to the right of the EPP, a Rome-Warsaw axis, capable of governing, capable of assuming responsibility and opposing immigration."
Orbán has, however, been unwilling to leave the European People's Party. Some observers have postulated that he is inclined to stay with the EPP because, as the most powerful grouping in the European Parliament, it shields him from retribution from his pro-EU opponents.
In any event, Salvini and Orbán have pledged to create an "anti-immigration axis" aimed at countering the pro-migration policies of the European Union. Meeting in Milan on August 28, Orbán and Salvini vowed to work together with Austria and the Visegrad Group — the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia — to oppose a pro-migration group of EU countries led by French President Macron.
At a joint press conference, Salvini said:
"Today begins a journey that will continue in the coming months for a different Europe, for a change of the European Commission, of European policies, which puts at the center the right to life, work, health, safety, all that the European elites, financed by [billionaire Hungarian philanthropist George] Soros and represented by Macron, deny.
"We are close to a historic turning point at the continental level. I am astonished at the stupor of a political left that now exists only to challenge others and believes that Milan should not host the president of a European country, as if the left has the authority to decide who has the right to speak and who does not — and then they wonder why no one votes for them anymore.
"This is the first of a long series of meetings to change destinies, not only of Italy and of Hungary, but of the whole European continent."
"European elections will be held soon, and many things must change. At the moment there are two sides in Europe: One is led by Macron, who supports mass migration. The other side is led by countries that want to protect their borders. Hungary and Italy belong to the latter.
"Hungary has shown that we can stop migrants on land. Salvini has shown that migrants can be stopped at sea. We thank him for protecting Europe's borders.
"Migrants must be sent back to their countries. Brussels says we cannot do it. They also said it was impossible to stop migrants on land, but we did it.
"Salvini and I, we seem to share the same destiny. He is my hero."
Germany and France have responded to the challenge by doubling down on European integration. On January 10, The Times of London reported that Merkel and Macron are set to sign the so-called "Aachen Treaty" which will "herald a new era of integration" by "forging shared defense, foreign and economic policies in an unprecedented 'twinning' pact regarded as a prototype for the future of the European Union." According to The Times:
"Regions on either side of the Franco-German border will be encouraged to form 'Eurodistricts' with merged water, electricity and public transport networks. Berlin and Paris will offer cash to incentivize these cross-border areas, which could involve shared hospitals, joint business schemes or environmental projects. Some officials regard these experiments as a petri dish for the integration of the EU.
"Both countries will lobby for Germany to receive a permanent seat on the United Nations security council, alongside France, the US, China, Russia and Britain, the victorious allies at the end of the Second World War.
"France and Germany also intend to speak with one voice in Brussels, drawing up common positions before pivotal European Union summits in an effort to make the bloc a more decisive power on the world stage. The treaty is designed to signal that France and Germany will uphold the values of multilateralism at a time when the global liberal order is under threat. Both President Macron and Mrs. Merkel have expressed frustration at the rise of populism and nationalism, and at Europe's dithering in the face of problems such as climate change and mass migration....
"The brief document will be signed on January 22 in Aachen, the ancient German spa city near the borders with Belgium and the Netherlands. It is meant to be ratified by the two national parliaments that same day.
"The location is heavy with symbolism. Aachen, known as Aix-la-Chapelle in French, was the Frankish imperial capital under Charlemagne, and has passed back and forth between Germany and France several times.
"Leaked extracts from the new Aachen treaty describe 'harmonization' of business regulations and co-ordination of economic policy between the states, guided by a joint council of experts.
"The text bears the imprint of Mr. Macron's desire to use Franco-German consensus to rally the EU into becoming more assertive as a global power.
"The two governments will agree to hold 'regular consultations on all levels before major European meetings and take care to establish common positions and issue joint statements.' It adds: 'They will stand up for a strong and effective common foreign and defense policy and strengthen and deepen the economic and currency union.'
"It lays the groundwork for a Franco-German defense and security council that would act as a 'political steering group,' with each side influencing the other's decisions.... On the military front, the treaty enshrines an ambition to form a "common culture and common deployments" overseas."
The Aachen Treaty is certain to face considerable domestic opposition in both countries. In France, which has been rocked by the "yellow vest" protest movement, Marine Le Pen dismissed the new treaty as an "unbalanced" diktat from Germany. Alexander Gauland, leader of the anti-mass-migration party Alternative for Germany, described it as an "erosion of our national sovereignty."
The AfD is split over its approach to Salvini. While senior AfD leaders have praised Salvini over his support for national sovereignty and his opposition to mass migration, Alice Weidel, leader of the AfD in the Bundestag has been sharply critical of the Italian government's financial management:
"Rome has already piled up a debt of almost 2.3 trillion euros. Wealthy Italians have long since transferred their assets abroad....
"When the EU rejects Italy's draft budget, Interior Minister Salvini rumbles: 'Nobody will take even one euro from this budget, from the pockets of the Italians.' He apparently overlooks the fact that Italy would have long ago been insolvent without the help of the EU. How can you sell to the Europeans that in the future 400,000 to 500,000 Italians will be retired early, and also that there should also be a minimum income and a flat tax? These are benefits of a welfare state that other EU member states do not dare to dream of.
"The median assets of the Italian households are at a stately 240,000 euros, while in Germany they are only 66,000 euros. Italy grants amnesty to tax evaders, barely recognizes property taxes and has a ridiculous inheritance tax. Instead, it relies on European solidarity or on the European Central Bank to cancel the debt. Germany would once again be paymaster. These Romans are crazy!"
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz agreed. He tweeted:
"I do not understand the budget proposal that #Italy submitted to #Brussels. We certainly will not pay for the #debts and populist election promises of others.
"At least since the #Greece crisis, it is clear that over-indebtedness is dangerous. In addition, socially weak and poor people pay the highest price for this policy. Therefore, we have finally ended the #debt policy in Austria and reported a budget surplus to Brussels.
"We therefore expect the Italian government to comply with the existing rules. The Maastricht criteria apply to all."
Salvini first promoted the idea of a pan-European network of nationalist parties in July 2018, after his Lega party formed a coalition government with former arch rival, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S):
"To win we had to unite Italy, now we will have to unite Europe. I am thinking about a League of the Leagues of Europe, bringing together all the free and sovereign movements that want to defend their people and their borders."
Salvini is now working on a shared, ten-point program that has yet to be fully defined. During a joint press conference in Warsaw, Salvini elaborated:
"I proposed to PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński — and I intend to propose it to others — a pact for Europe, a contract with specific commitments, a ten-point platform based on the model of the contract we signed in Italy. This agreement would allow us to overcome the differences between parties and geographical and cultural traditions. I would like a common alliance between those who want to save Europe. This goal must be first and foremost in the next European Parliament....
"We propose a common program to be offered to other parties and peoples in Europe founded on certain themes, like economic growth, security, the family, Europe's Christian roots — themes that some in Brussels have denied....
"We have started a journey of ideas in a European Parliament that will be different from the socialist-center-right duopoly that has always governed Europe.... The only certainty I have of the European elections is that the socialists and the communists will always be less in Brussels — they have already done enough damage....
"If we want to change the EU we must be ambitious — think big. Our goal is to be present in all European countries and work with other sovereignist forces.... I know there is interest within many countries for change. This is a historic occasion: it is time to replace the Franco-German axis with an Italian-Polish alliance."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute.