The leader of the right-wing party in Italy’s populist government has told tens of thousands of supporters he wants to turn next year’s European Parliament election into a referendum on immigration and job security.
Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini also told his League party’s annual gathering of a vision of uniting the political movements in several European countries which say they want to prevent national interests from being eclipsed by European Union agendas.
Mr Salvini said at the event held in sweltering heat in Pontida, northern Italy: “I am thinking of a League of Leagues that will put together all the free, sovereign movements.”
The League leader enjoys a rapport with French far-right leader Marine Le Pen and former Ukip leader Nigel Farage.
He said the 2019 election for the EU’s legislature should be tantamount to a “referendum between the elite, the banks, finance, immigration and job security and the Europe of the peoples and of work”.
The League has long railed against EU strictures on national spending and has expressed scepticism about whether it is worth it for Italy to remain in the eurozone.
“The happiness of the people comes first,” Mr Salvini proclaimed, drawing rousing cheers from League rank-and-file.
He asked supporters if they would “swear, yes or no, to liberate the people from this Europe”.
“Yes,” came the resounding reply from the crowd.
Since taking office in Italy’s month-old coalition government, Mr Salvini has made good on a campaign pledge to crack down on humanitarian groups that rescue migrants from smugglers’ boats in the Mediterranean Sea and then ferry the asylum-seekers to Italian ports.
Several hundred thousand rescued passengers, many of them economic migrants ineligible for asylum, have flooded Italy in the last few years.
Mr Salvini announced on Saturday that Italy is refusing to allow a rescue ship to dock in an Italian port, the third such denial in three weeks.
Spain stepped in to offer safe harbour, and the vessel operated by Spanish aid group Proactiva Open Arms is headed to Barcelona.
Mr Salvini told the rally: “Today, there’s a third ship that will head to another country, and there will also be a fourth and a fifth and so on.”
He reiterated his stance that “the doors of Italy will be wide open for women and children who flee war,” but “for the others, no”.
The League is junior partner in the coalition government with the anti-EU 5-Star Movement. In the weeks since, League candidates have triumphed in a series of mayoral elections, sometimes at the expense of the 5-Stars.
A survey of eligible voters published in Saturday’s Corriere della Sera newspaper found support for the League polling at 31.2%, compared to the Movement’s 29.8%.
A prominent 5-Star figure, Roberto Fico, who is president of the Italian parliament’s lower Chamber, has opposed Mr Salvini’s policy of denying safe harbour to humanitarian rescue boats.
Mr Salvini said that was Mr Fico’s personal opinion. Similarly dismissing any talk of a coalition rift was 5-Star leader Luigi Di Maio, who, like Mr Salvini, serves as deputy premier.
The League has been transformed from from a north-based regional movement into a national force, attracting anti-migrant voters in the south, a region the party once denigrated as an unproductive drain on national coffers.