Europe’s populists rebrand but policies remain the same

BRUSSELS (AP) — Europe’s far-right and populist parties sought to rebrand themselves Thursday, launching a new group dubbed Identity and Democracy in the European Parliament but with many of the same faces and most of the old policies.

Claiming to be riding the crest of a popular wave from last month’s EU elections, the group welcomed in the far-right Alternative for Germany and renewed pledges to take back sovereignty from Brussels, boost security and stop migrants entering Europe.

“Things must change, because voters demand it,” Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Rally party said at a news conference where several of the group’s staff, stood among reporters, applauded the politicians’ remarks. “The time of hidden maneuvers behind the backs of the people is over.”

“This attempt to create a European super-state has not brought any added value,” said Marco Zanni, from the Lega party of Italian Deputy Premier Matteo Salvini, who sent his apologies for not being able to attend the launch.

Drawn from nine of the EU’s 28 member countries, Identity and Democracy will hold 73 seats in the new parliament — double its predecessor — but will only control around 10% of the 751-seat assembly. The biggest center-right and -left parties lost ground in the May 23-26 polls, but allied with mainstream pro-business and pro-environment parties they still hold a comfortable majority.

While insisting that they want change, members of Identity and Democracy — Le Pen in a maroon-colored coat was the only woman among nine dark-suited men — said they don’t want to see the end of the European Union. They said their door remains open to other parties, including Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party or Hungary’s anti-migrant Fidesz party.

“For us, Europe is a geographic concept and a cultural sphere. Protecting Europe from phenomena like massive Third World immigration and its consequences is very pro-European,” said Jussi Halla-Aho, leader of the Finns Party, which has also teamed up with the group.

The big question is whether the group will be able to stick together in Europe, given the very nationalist tendencies and domestic interests of its parties. The far-right and populists have struggled to join forces in the past, and the party representatives papered over differences that could emerge as challenges in the future.

“We will not give up our identity. I think that unites us all,” said Joerg Meuthen, from Alternative for Germany.