By Katrin Bennhold
The stage was set for war. Literally. Inside a small Tuscan theater with a mock-up of a World War I trench, Susanna Ceccardi, a rising star of Italy’s hard-right League party, was flanked by rival candidates for the European Parliament elections and firing angry salvos against a club she soon hopes to join.
“This Europe must be changed, this Europe of bureaucrats, do-gooders, bankers, boats of migrants, it has to be changed,” Ceccardi, the 32-year-old mayor of Cascina, Italy, roared to smatters of applause.
She is among scores of nationalist candidates from across the Continent who are vying to win an office at the heart of the European Union — so they can break it from the inside.
Not so long ago, Europe’s populist movements were advocating a departure from the bloc, or at least from the euro currency area. But with voters overwhelmingly in favor of staying in — an attitude hardened by two years of Brexit chaos — that strategy has changed: Now they are promising an insurgency from within.
By stoking fears about mass migration, Islamization and a European elite grabbing ever more powers from national capitals, populist parties hope this election will sufficiently increase their weight in the European Parliament to allow them to gum things up, block budgets and trade deals, introduce legislation they like and interfere with things they do not.
A bigger bloc in the Parliament, even if it falls short of a majority, could also give them influence in selecting candidates for some of the big jobs in the EU, like the president of the European Commission, the union’s executive arm.
In voting that began Thursday and ends Sunday, Europe’s motley crew of populists are not expected to win the biggest number of the Parliament’s 751 seats, much less a majority, when results are announced late Sunday. They are deeply divided on some key issues. But they are united in their hope for an electoral breakthrough that could disrupt European politics.
For years, the European Parliament has been a platform for some of Europe’s noisiest populists — not least Marine Le Pen of France and Nigel Farage of Britain. The very institution they have relentlessly beaten up on has given them offices, salaries, travel expenses and media attention.