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Austria scandal overshadows Salvini’s European nationalist rally

Italian populist leader Matteo Salvini on Saturday gathered Europe’s disparate nationalists for a unifying rally overshadowed by a major corruption scandal shaking Austria’s far-right coalition.
The Milan rally hoped to see leaders of 12 far-right parties marching towards their conquest of Brussels after next week’s European parliamentary elections.
Headliners Salvini of the anti-immigrant League and Marine Le Pen of France’s Islamophobic National Rally (RN) want their Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group to become the third largest in Brussels.
“Stop the bureaucrats, bankers, do-gooders, migrant boats,” read one pro-Salvini banner. “Italy first,” read another as the speeches began. “Our battle is against totalitarianism: globalisation and Islamism,” Le Pen said ahead of the march.
Hundreds gathered in a Milan park for an anti-fascist counter-demonstration - “Welcome migrants, expel Salvini,” read one banner - as the city’s central Duomo square filled with League supporters massed under a light rain to listen to leaders’ speeches. But explosive graft allegations against the leader of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) and vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache meant the party’s top candidate in next week’s elections pulled out of the Milan rally. Despite their shared dislike of immigration, multiculturalism, the left and the EU, Europe’s populists remain divided on many other key issues, including budgetary discipline, migrant distribution and relations with Moscow, as highlighted by the Austrian scandal.
In Milan, Le Pen was forced to say that her party obeyed French party finance rules, which she called “strict” and “questionable” as they prevented the RN from borrowing money outside Europe.
French lawmakers recently called for a probe into links between the RN and Donald Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon after he discussed paying back a Russian loan to Le Pen’s party in a documentary.
Most of Europe’s rightwing nationalists are currently divided into three blocs and a tangled web of alliances in the European Parliament–an institution Salvini and Le Pen would like to overhaul if not destroy. The ENF includes Austria’s Freedom Party, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang and the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom, whose head Geert Wilders was also due in Milan.
Notably absent from the rally is Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party and Poland’s governing PiS (Law and Justice party). Orban has voiced admiration for Salvini and promised “cooperation” after the vote, but refuses any alliance with Le Pen. He has his own problems after allegations from a rights group Saturday that his election landslide last year was marred by vote-rigging.