January 9, 2019 / 2:10 AM / 4 months ago

Italy's Salvini visits Poland to discuss eurosceptic alliance for EU elections

WARSAW (Reuters) - Italy’s far-right Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and the leader of Poland’s ruling party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, will discuss on Wednesday the possibility of forming a eurosceptic alliance to contest the European Parliament elections in May.

FILE PHOTO: Italian Deputy Prime Minister and right-wing League party leader Matteo Salvini attends a news conference in Jerusalem, December 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad/File Photo

The visit to Warsaw, initiated by Polish Interior Minister Joachim Brudzinski, comes amid broader efforts by eurosceptics across the continent to unite that could fundamentally shift the direction of the European Union after the elections.

“(The election) will show whether the eurosceptic voices within Europe are on the rise or if the rise has been curtailed for the moment,” said Michal Baranowski, the head of the German Marshall Fund’s Warsaw office.

Salvini, who heads Italy’s anti-immigrant League Party, has repeatedly criticised the EU and says the May elections are vital for creating a “reformist” bloc that can overhaul the Brussels institutions from within.

He has even hinted he might be a candidate to head the EU executive, the European Commission.

“Someone has betrayed the European dream,” Salvini told a League rally in Rome last month. “We will provide the blood for a new European community based on respect, work, growth and equality.”

Kaczynski says Poland, the biggest beneficiary of EU infrastructure funds, should remain a member of the bloc it joined in 2004 but wants reforms to bring more power back from Brussels to national capitals.

CLASHING WITH EU

His ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has clashed with Brussels on a range of issues, including the rule of law in Poland, environmental protection and migration. Kaczynski says the EU should stop meddling in Poland’s affairs.

In turn, the PiS government has been accused by opponents at home and abroad of tilting towards authoritarianism and is the subject of an unprecedented rule-of-law investigation by the EU.

“Both politicians (Kaczynski and Salvini) would like to see a Europe that is more focussed on sovereign European nations - a Europe of nations rather than a closer united Europe,” said Baranowski.

Salvini met other potential allies last year, including Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, in an effort to form a cohesive eurosceptic grouping at the EU level.

Salvini could try to unite the Europe of Nations and Freedom bloc, to which his League belongs, with the European Conservatives and Reformists group which includes PiS to create a single, powerful eurosceptic force in the EU Parliament.

A tie-up with Salvini’s grouping could ensure a powerful voice for PiS in the next European Parliament, especially as Britain’s Conservatives will leave the European Conservatives and Reformists grouping after Brexit.

But PiS has also been trying to dilute its eurosceptic reputation ahead of Poland’s own parliamentary election due in the autumn, recently agreeing to reverse a law criticised by the EU that had forced Supreme Court judges into early retirement.

Edit Zgut, a political scientist at Warsaw University’s Centre for Europe, also highlighted the contrasting views of Salvini and Kaczynski towards Russia. Like most Polish conservatives, Kaczynski is deeply distrustful of Moscow.

“Salvini is one of the most openly pro-Kremlin leaders in Europe... (while) Kaczynski has been trying to show PiS’s pro-EU face recently,” she said.

The differences over Russia, which are likely to come up at the meeting, could be the main obstacle to future cooperation.

“Some of the views in Italy regarding Russia are met with concern in Poland across the political spectrum,” Baranowski said.

Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer in Rome; Editing by Justyna Pawlak and Gareth Jones

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