BERLIN - Right-wing populist parties are gearing up to campaign for European Parliament elections next month, but policy differences and the Brexit drama threaten their dream to "unite the right."
Many fear the May 26 vote will be a wake-up call for Brussels on the reality that Europe's anti-immigration and blood-and-soil patriotic forces have moved from the fringes to the mainstream.
Once considered outsiders, they could now end up with one-fifth or more of the seats, allowing them to shift the tone of political discourse and make a claim for legitimacy.
Key players are Marine Le Pen's National Rally (NR) in France and the Italian League of Matteo Salvini, who is hosting a meeting of like-minded right-wing groups in Milan on Monday.
In the EU's top economy, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has become the biggest opposition party by railing against Chancellor Angela Merkel and her 2015 decision to allow a mass influx of asylum seekers.
The AfD launched its election program in the southwestern city of Offenburg on Saturday, calling for "a Europe of fatherlands" and opposing the EU's immigration, financial and climate policies.
"This European campaign is a campaign about identity," said party co-leader Alexander Gauland.
"The European Union is not a state. It doesn't need a parliament," he added.
Despite financial scandals, the AfD has the support of 10 percent of voters, according to opinion polls, with its popularity highest in the former East Germany.
Meeting in Milan
On Monday in Milan, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Salvini will follow up and gather allies from across Europe to try to lay the foundations for a future hard-right grouping in the now 751-member European Parliament.
Salvini and Le Pen also agreed to call another meeting in May, after they met in Paris on Friday, a NR source said.
"The leaders are considering a common manifesto to close the electoral campaign and announce the start of a new Europe," said a spokesman for Salvini.
So far, Europe's right-wing nationalists have been divided into three blocs and a tangled web of alliances in the legislature that moves between seats in Brussels and the French city of Strasbourg.
They are the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group, which includes the RN and League; the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR); and the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD).
The dream of Salvini — and of Steve Bannon, the former adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump — has been to unite the disparate patriotic forces and form a federation of nationalist parties.
But so far such efforts have met with only limited success, in part because the parties' nationalist focus runs counter to a multinational approach.
Divided on key issues
Another problem for the groups has been that, despite their shared dislike for immigration, multiculturalism, the left and the EU, they remain divided on other key issues.
On economic policy, the AfD and their Scandinavian allies tend to believe in the market economy, while the French RN favors a more protectionist and statist approach.
While Italy's League, Poland's PiS and Hungary's Fidesz highlight Europe's Christian cultural roots, the RN has shied away from taking a similar stance in a country where the majority is in favor of secularism.
And even on immigration, Salvini's League favors an EU-wide redistribution of asylum seekers while others demand an outright stop to immigration.
On relations with Russia, Salvini has praised President Vladimir Putin, a view not shared by Poland's governing party.
The AfD's top candidate, Joerg Meuthen, said he expects big gains for nationalist parties but that they will have trouble forming a "patriotic alliance" with a common agenda.
There are also strategic deliberations. Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban has voiced admiration for Salvini but was considered unlikely to come to the Milan meeting, given his Fidesz party still belongs to the center-right European People's Party (EPP) group, despite its temporary suspension.
Meanwhile, most parties have also toned down their anti-EU rhetoric as the Brexit debacle has made the prospect of leaving the bloc look far less appealing.
Le Pen renounced a "Frexit" after the 2017 presidential election and her disastrous debates against Emmanuel Macron, while Germany's AfD has downgraded a "Dexit" scenario to a "last resort."
Still, the potential of the far-right must not be underestimated, said Sven Hutten, political scientist at Berlin's Free University.
He warned that such groups target "15 to 30 percent of the population" and that at the moment "the populist right is fighting for unity and to build a single bloc."