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Italy's Salvini calls for European anti-migrant alliance

Salvini's tough stance has sparked warnings that authoritarian movements may take advantage of migration issues
Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini speaks in Pontida on Sunday (AFP)

Italy's hardline Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini called for a Europe-wide alliance against "mass immigration" at a triumphant annual gathering of his far-right League party on Sunday. 

In a keynote speech at the League's annual gathering in the countryside town of Pontida, north of Milan, Salvini said the League would govern Italy for the next 30 years, receiving rapturous applause from thousands of flag-waving supporters.

"To win we had to unite Italy, now we will have to unite Europe," Salvini said. "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 - who has forged alliances with other far-right European groups including France's National Rally, led by Marine Le Pen - earlier said that next year's European Parliament elections will be a referendum on "a Europe without borders... and a Europe that protects its citizens".

In his efforts to build a network of right-wing nationalist parties around Europe, Salvini has cited Le Pen, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, among others.

The issue of migration has once again exposed the rifts plaguing the European Union, as member states fight over how to handle the influx of people fleeing war, poverty and persecution. This influx has actually decreased significantly since the height of what has been called the "migration crisis", in 2015. 

"I will tour capital cities, and not just European ones, to create an alternative to this Europe founded on exploitation... and mass immigration," Salvini said.

About 50,000 people came from all over Italy to attend his speech, local media reported, drawn by Salvini's "Italians first" rallying cry.

'Most populist party'

"It's an indescribable feeling," Salvini told the crowd, to hear the "calls of love coming from Pontida".

He had earlier told journalists that the League had cemented its place as the "most populist party" in Europe.

"The term is a compliment to me," said the 45-year-old, clad in a blue T-shirt bearing his own portrait.

Salvini, who is also co-deputy prime minister, has thrived as the migrant issue has become central to the European Union's agenda.

He announced on Friday that Italian ports would be closed "all summer" to NGO ships that rescue migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe. 

"The NGOs will only see Italy on a postcard," Salvini had quipped.

"The decision to open or close ports is taken by the interior minister," he said on Sunday.

Anti-immigration hardliners accuse the rescuers of exacerbating the situation in the Mediterranean, where migrants try to cross the sea on rickety boats from North Africa.

Salvini has all but eclipsed his co-deputy prime minister and Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio.

"It's the League's moment," the Corriere della Sera newspaper said on Saturday.

The party's strength "depends above all on the continuity of Matteo Salvini's communication strategy in relation to the electoral campaign, a strategy based on a precise choice of sensitive topics in Europe, and also on his aggressive stance towards political leaders," in particular President Emmanuel Macron of neighbouring France, the paper said.

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Last weekend, Macron called for financial penalties to be levied against EU nations that refuse to accept migrants.

The two men have also clashed over Rome's refusal to take in rescue boats with asylum-seekers.

Italy's tough stance comes in spite of the fact that arrivals have dipped by 96 percent since the peak of Europe's migration crisis in 2015.

It has also sparked warnings that authoritarian movements will take advantage of any failure to tackle migration.