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In Italy Far-right League holds annual rally in buoyant mood

Italy's far-right League launched its annual gathering on Sunday with party head and hardline Interior Minister Matteo Salvini in triumphant mood after declaring the country's ports closed to NGO migrant ships.

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Italy's hardline Interior Minister Matteo Salvini was in a triumphant mood at the annual gathering of his far-right League party on Sunday play

Italy's hardline Interior Minister Matteo Salvini was in a triumphant mood at the annual gathering of his far-right League party on Sunday

(AFP)

Italy's far-right League launched its annual gathering on Sunday with party head and hardline Interior Minister Matteo Salvini in triumphant mood after declaring the country's ports closed to NGO migrant ships.

Salvini, attending his fifth party conference in the northern port of Pontida, said the League had cemented its place as the "most populist party" in Europe.

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

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

Around 50,000 people from around Italy were expected to attend the event, drawn by Salvini's "Italians first" rallying cry.

Salvini, who is co-deputy prime minister as well as interior minister, has thrived with his hardline stance as the migrant issue has become central to the European agenda.

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

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

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.

The issue 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 trying to reach the continent.

On Friday, the bloc's 28 leaders hammered out a hard-fought agreement aimed at clamping down on immigration. But key divisions remain regarding its implementation.

Salvini -- who has forged alliances with other far-right Europeans including France's National Rally -- said on Sunday that the 2019 European Parliament elections will be a referendum on "a Europe without borders... and a Europe that protects its citizens".

'League's moment'

Italy's new anti-establishment government took power on June 1, ending months of deadlock that saw the eurozone's third largest economy narrowly avoid snap elections after a last-gasp coalition deal.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was sworn in at the head of the first far-right, populist government in an EU founding member, forged by the League and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S).

Salvini's hardline charisma has all but eclipsed his co-deputy prime minister and M5S head, Luigi Di Maio.

"It's the League's moment," the Corriere della Sera declared Saturday.

Italy's new far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini hailed the League as the "most populist party" in the EU play

Italy's new far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini hailed the League as the "most populist party" in the EU

(AFP)

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.

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

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

Italy's tough stance comes despite 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.

Salvini took the helm of the League in 2013, when it was a northern secessionist party on the brink of collapse with four percent of the popular vote.

Since then, he has ridden a wave of public discontent, playing on anti-immigrant sentiment as he sought to shift the party's image from defender of the wealthy north against its "parasite" south, to that of guardian of Italy's national sovereignty.

His previous mocking of southern Italians has been forgotten and for Sunday's party conference there will be people travelling up in their hundreds from Campania, Calabria and even Sicily.

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