Europe's rising far-right tries to bury differences to wield clout

By Francesco Guarascio
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Deputy Prime Minister and League party leader Matteo Salvini speaks to the media at the League party headquarters in Milan

Deputy Prime Minister and League party leader Matteo Salvini speaks to the media at the League party headquarters, following the results of the European Parliament elections, in Milan, Italy May 27, 2019. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo

By Francesco Guarascio

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Europe's nationalist forces gained some ground at the European Parliament elections, but face an uphill task to unite behind common goals and lure other parties into disrupting the pro-EU majority's policies.

Spearheading that challenge is Italy's Matteo Salvini, whose League party has become the driving eurosceptic force and wants to bring together like-minded parties scattered across several groups in the European Union legislature.

The tough-talking deputy prime minister said on Monday he aimed to group 150 lawmakers and had discussed the matter with Marine Le Pen's National Rally in France, Nigel Farage's Brexit Party in Britain and Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Hungary.

Provisional results give more than 170 seats, or 23% of the 751-member assembly, to parties that sat in eurosceptic groups in the last parliament. That was up from 20%, but was a smaller gain than some had expected for the far-right and left pro-European parties with a firm majority still.

The push for a nationalist bloc is complicated by differences on big issues like asylum and relations with Moscow.

At least, though, one of the three groupings in which they are currently divided looks set to disappear.

After poor results by most of its members, the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) group - led by the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and Italy's anti-establishment 5-Star Movement - will struggle to reach the threshold of seven national parties necessary to form a group in the EU assembly.

In another possible boost to Salvini's plan, Poland's ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS), currently with the mildly eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, said it was ready for talks on an alliance with the League.

PiS has won 23 seats in the new assembly.


ORBAN-SALVINI ALLIANCE?

Though the number of eurosceptic deputies looks insufficient to block legislation in a chamber that will remain dominated by centrist and liberal forces, the nationalists could punch above their weight on some issues with the right alliances.

"There is a risk that some sectors of the EPP (mainstream European People's Party) will be drawn further to the right by the stronger presence of the far right," said Kenneth Haar, researcher at Corporate Europe Observatory, a campaign group.

This, he said, would be most likely on issues concerning human rights and democracy.

Orban, who with 52% of the Hungarian vote won 13 seats in the EU parliament, is seen as the most likely to quit the EPP, from which his party has already been suspended over concerns on rule of law in Hungary.

"If he decides to team up with Salvini and his group, it would send a big signal to the European pro-EU establishment," said Mujtaba Rahman, of Eurasia Group consultancy.

Italy's former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose Forza Italia party has won eight seats in the EU chamber, has also repeatedly called for the EPP's shift to the right.

Vox, Spain's new far-right party, could also side with Salvini's group on some issues.

Hampering that, however, are deep divisions among nationalist parties which stopped them mounting a meaningful challenge to pro-EU parties in the past legislature.

Nationalists from eastern Europe have for long opposed Italy's calls to share asylum seekers among EU states.

Poland's PiS is wary of Salvini and Le Pen's cosy relations with Russia. And on economic policies, eurosceptics have widely differing views, with Salvini's calls for more flexibility on fiscal rules being met with coldness by his Austrian allies of the far-right FPO.

Eurosceptics' rise is also partly due to the success of Farage's Brexit Party, which with 29 seats is the largest in the new parliament. But it is likely to only be a temporary gain, as British deputies will have to quit once Britain leaves the EU on Oct. 31, unless a new extension is granted.

Nationalists may however find improbable allies on specific issues, said Guntram Wolff, director of the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel. They could for instance end up siding with the leftists and the strengthened Greens on opposing new trade deals.


(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio; Additional reporting by Krisztina Than in Budapest; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)