Far-right leaders meet to discuss ‘free Europe’ vision

Far-right populist leaders from Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands meet in the German city of Koblenz on Saturday to present their vision for “a free Europe” that would dismantle the European Union.

Marine Le Pen, who is expected to make it into a May 7 second-round run-off for the French presidency, is due to speak at the meeting, along with Frauke Petry of the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD).

They will be joined by Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch far-right Freedom Party (PVV) who was last month convicted of discrimination against Moroccans, and Matteo Salvini of the Northern League who wants to take Italy out of the euro.

Emboldened by Britons’ vote last year to leave the European Union, the leaders are meeting under the slogan “Freedom for Europe” and aim to strengthen ties between their like-minded parties, whose nationalist tendencies have hampered close collaboration in the past.

“This gives us an opportunity to see how we stand with other European parties,” a spokeswoman for Salvini said.

Le Pen told France’s Radio Classique that the meeting was proof that her party was not isolated.

“It is therefore the revolution of the people that we are taking part in. It is obviously very important to show that the cooperative Europe we want to achieve (is reflected) in our cooperation,” she said.

Several leading German media have been barred from the meeting, which is being organized by the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF), the smallest group in the European Parliament, in a year when the parties are hoping for electoral breakthroughs.

Populist anti-immigration parties are on the rise across Europe as high unemployment and austerity, the arrival of record numbers of refugees and militant attacks in France, Belgium and Germany feed voter disillusionment with traditional parties.

The mood is mirrored in the United States, where Republican Donald Trump was inaugurated as U.S. president on Friday after running an election campaign with rhetoric that was widely denounced as racist and divisive.

In the Netherlands, Wilders is leading in all major polls before national parliamentary elections on March 15. In Germany, Petry’s AfD is expected to enter the national parliament for the first time after federal elections in September.

Protests against the far-right are planned during the meeting, which has prized open divisions in the AfD. (Courtesy Reuters)