MILAN (AP) — The leader of Italy's right-wing League party on Friday rejected the label "far-right" for an alliance of like-minded populist leaders that are aiming to join forces and weaken European Union bureaucracy after next week's elections across the bloc.
Matteo Salvini will lead a rally Saturday in Milan with leaders of 11 nationalist parties, some from the far-right, including France's National Rally and Alternative for Germany. But he dismissed an extremist label for the populist parliamentary group that he hopes to form after the May 23-26 European Parliament elections.
"I don't see the far-right in Europe. I think they are old categories that are outdated: fascists, communists, right, left," he said. "I don't see this wave of extremes in Europe. There is a different vision of Europe that is absolutely legitimate."
Salvini said he intends for the League to emerge as the top party in Italy, but he demurred on whether he would lead the new parliamentary group of populists, saying it would depend on the vote's outcome.
"My ambition, my pride, my hope is that the League can be the first party from this country represented in the European Parliament and that other movements close to use can be the first, second, third parties in their countries," he said.
The leaders of the 11 parties will march through Milan on Saturday before rallying in front of the Duomo Cathedral. Notably absent will be Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose party remains part of the European People's Party despite concerns that Hungary has become less democratic under Orban.
Salvini's influence has grown among other xenophobic parties with his refusal to allow humanitarian ships carrying migrants rescued at sea to make port in Italy, creating numerous standoffs while Europe haggled over which countries would give them haven. He also is outspoken about the threat of Islam.
Salvini said Friday that there are districts of cities in Europe "where Islamic law applies," citing Rotterdam, Malmo, London, Marseille and Brussels.
"If we do not put a stop to this backward slide, from my point of view, socially and in terms of cultural rights, we risk regretting it bitterly in a few years' time," he said.
Before Saturday's rally, banners hung from private residences throughout the city aimed at Salvini and his guests read "You are not welcome," and "open doors," a rebuff of Salvini's migrant policies.
Salvini said the populist parliamentary group aims to create a Europe "that does few things and does them well," restoring decision-making over such sectors as trade, agriculture and banking to member states.
Salvini, who is both Italy's vice premier and interior minister, is pledging new "shock" proposals to relaunch Italy's economy during the rally and said the most important issues in the EU vote next week are security and employment.
Italy's borrowing costs rose to the highest levels in months this week after Salvini suggested that Italy could break EU fiscal rules and increase its public debt to create jobs. Salvini's coalition partner, Luigi Di Maio of the 5-Star Movement, called the remarks "irresponsible," as tensions between the parties grow in the run-up to next week's vote.
On Friday, Salvini blamed the spike in borrowing costs to speculating investors, and asserted that "the fundamentals of the Italian economy are absolutely healthy."
Italy struggles with high public debt of 132% of gross domestic product, which has curtailed its ability to make investments to boost stagnating growth.