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Merkel Steps Up Contest for EU’s Future With Attack on Populists

Patrick Donahue and John Follain
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Polarized Europe Heads Into Vote With Merkel Slapping Populists

(Bloomberg) -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Europeans against falling sway to populists, evoking the continent’s wars in a proxy showdown with Italy’s deputy premier before voters have their say next week.

On a day when far-right politics brought down a government in Austria, Merkel stepped up her message that only the European Union’s established parties could protect liberal values and seven decades of prosperity built up since World War II.

As some of the region’s top nationalists rallied in Italy, Merkel’s first full-scale campaign event ahead of the European Parliament election illuminated the choices facing voters as they help determine the future of a 28-country union that’s under unprecedented strain.

“Our values mean that we can be proud of our country and at the same time work to build Europe,’’ she told a capacity crowd of 6,000 in a basketball stadium in the Croatian capital Zagreb on Saturday.

For his part, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini gathered a coterie of 12 nationalist parties in Milan, inveighing against migration and calling for a “fiscal shock’’ policy in line with that of President Donald Trump.

Merkel wielded her clout as Europe’s longest-serving leader to back fellow German Manfred Weber, the lead candidate for the center-right European People’s Party in the May 23-26 EU-wide election. She pointed to Germany’s 74 years of peace, a result of European unity -- and contrasted it with Croatia, a country last at war in the early 1990s after it declared independence from the fragmenting Yugoslavia.

‘Preserve This Peace’

“You know what that means,” she said, “and that’s why it’s so important that we preserve this peace.”

Salvini took the stage on a packed Cathedral Square in his hometown in northern Italy with Marine Le Pen of France’s National Rally, Joerg Meuthen of Alternative for Germany and Geert Wilders of the Dutch Party for Freedom, all leaders of parties looking to the EU vote to ratify the populist surge sweeping much of the continent.

Salvini drew jeers from the crowd as he named his foes, denouncing “the elites and the powers which have occupied this Europe in the name of finance, of multinationals, of the God Money and of uncontrolled immigration: Macron, Merkel, Soros, Juncker.”

“This Europe would force us to increase taxes,” Salvini said. “But if you make the League the first force in Europe I will not give up until everyone in Italy pays 15% in taxes.”

“Look at what Donald Trump is doing for the U.S. economy, with courage, lowering taxes, the economy is restarting, we don’t want to increase taxes here either,” he said.

Next week’s ballot will help shape the EU’s next leadership team after a showdown between Brussels loyalists and insurgents from Brexit Britain to Hungary and Poland. In Italy, a founding member of a united Europe and one of the continent’s biggest bond markets, Salvini has shaken investors with his challenges to EU restrictions.

Speakers at the rally were dwarfed by a giant banner that read “Italy First! Toward a Common-Sense Europe.” Le Pen thanked Salvini for organizing the demonstration, calling it the start of a “democratic revolution” in Europe. “No more diktats from the European super-state, no more immigration, basta Islam,” Wilders said.

Weber struggled to hold the crowd’s attention as he spoke in German-accented English in Zagreb under a bust of Franjo Tudjman, who led Croatia to independence during the Balkan wars that broke up Yugoslavia into smaller countries during the 1990s. The EPP candidate took special aim at Le Pen, who champions French nationalism and derides European institutions.

“We have to answer this,” Weber said. “My first answer is that I will fight with all my means against all these nationalisms.”

--With assistance from Sergio Di Pasquale and Gordana Filipovic.

To contact the reporters on this story: Patrick Donahue in Zagreb at pdonahue1@bloomberg.net;John Follain in Rome at jfollain2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ben Sills at bsills@bloomberg.net, Tony Czuczka, Matthew G. Miller

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