Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s right-wing League, said Sunday he wanted to expand its success to create a pan-European association of nationalist parties, as Italy again refused to accept a boat of migrants stranded in the Mediterranean.
In a keynote speech at the League’s annual gathering in countryside north of Milan, Mr Salvini predicted the League would govern Italy for the next 30 years, receiving rapturous applause from thousands of flag-waving supporters.
"To win we had to unite Italy, now we will have to unite Europe," Mr Salvini said.
"I am thinking about a League of the Leagues of Europe, bringing together all the free and sovereign movements that want to defend their people and their borders."
Mr Salvini, deputy prime minister and interior minister in the coalition that took office on June 1, said with its tough line on migrants and in negotiations with the EU, the government had done more in a month than its predecessors had done in six years.
"What we have managed to do this year, next year we will do at the continental level," Mr Salvini said, in reference to elections for the European Parliament in May 2019.
In his efforts to build a network of right-wing, anti-migrant, nationalist parties around Europe, Mr Salvini has cited Marine Le Pen, France’s National Front leader, Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, and Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian Chancellor. among others.
His announcement came as the Spanish government on Sunday gave permission for Barcelona to receive 59 migrants rescued from waters off the coast of Libya on Saturday by Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms.
In an echo of the case of the 630 migrants on board the stricken rescue ship Aquarius eventually taken on shore in Valencia last month, Italy’s government again told the rescuers that they would not be welcomed at an Italian port as they were situated in the Libyan search-and-rescue zone.
“The nearest port is Malta, the NGO and the flag are Spanish: they can forget about arriving in an Italian port. Stop the mafia of human trafficking: the fewer people leave, the fewer will die”, Mr Salvini said on Twitter just minutes after the rescue had taken place.
In response, Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau urged the Spanish government to receive the migrants.
“Barcelona is prepared to receive the Open Arms and all those rescued,” Ms Colau tweeted on Saturday evening, asking Spanish Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to “allow us to save lives and not be accomplices to the deadly polices of Matteo Salvini”.
Mr Salvini accused the NGO of rushing in to pluck the 59 migrants from their crowded boat when a Libyan patrol boat was in the area. Reports from journalists on board the Open Arms rescue ship said that a Libyan patrol vessel arrived on the scene once the rescue was underway.
Some of the migrants begged their rescuers not to return them to Libya, where they claimed they had suffered violence and abuse.
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Proactiva Open Arms has accused the Italian authorities of impeding their efforts to save lives in the Mediterranean.