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Polarized Europe Heads Into Vote With Merkel Slapping Populists

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

(Bloomberg) -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel said European voters face a choice between liberal values and destructive nationalism, setting out the stakes this week for an increasingly polarized and fragile continent.

With a multi-day election to the European Union’s parliament concluding on May 26, centrist leaders like Merkel are campaigning against anti-EU parties from the U.K. to Poland that could win enough seats to disrupt the bloc’s policy making. Her chosen stage was Croatia, an EU member since 2013 that fought a nationalist war of independence from Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

“Our values mean that we can be proud of our country and at the same time work to build Europe,’’ Merkel told a crowd of 6,000 in Zagreb on Saturday. “There are populist currents that in many areas disdain these values, that want to destroy our European values.”

Antagonists of Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron gathered in Milan, where Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini led a rally of 12 nationalist parties from across Europe. He inveighed against migration and called for a “fiscal shock’’ policy in line with President Donald Trump’s to boost growth in Italy.

As Brexit and the decline of Europe’s established parties help create an opening for nationalists, a pro-Brexit party run by Nigel Farage is expected to win the most seats in the U.K. In France, Macron’s alliance is running neck-and-neck with Marine Le Pen’s National Rally.

The picture isn’t uniform. In Germany, which has the most seats in the European Parliament, polls suggest the pro-European Green party is headed for gains along with the anti-EU Alternative for Germany, while Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union will lose seats.

While Salvini has rattled bond markets with his challenges to EU budget and debt restrictions, he’s also bickering with his Five Star Movement coalition partner about his anti-Europe rhetoric.

“We want to go into Europe to change it from the inside, not to destroy it,” Luigi Di Maio, Salvini’s fellow deputy premier, told reporters on Sunday.

Salvini took the stage on a packed Cathedral Square in his hometown in northern Italy on Saturday with Le Pen, 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.”

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.

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

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

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

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