Posted: Kate Brady
Sitting down at the Rhein-Mosel-Halle, anyone would be forgiven for thinking they were attending a normal European summit.
National flags from the European Union’s 28 member states were draped around the conference hall. Despite the UK’s impending Brexit, even the Union Jack made an appearance – tucked away in a back corner – as well as the Swiss red cross.
But there was one emblem missing from this European event: the EU’s own circle of stars in blue and gold.
Amid the hubbub in the stalls, the lights were dimmed to the imposing tune of some classical pop, the expectant, beating anthem prompting the 1,000 guests to turn eagerly, craning their necks to get a better view as they watched the event unfold through the screens of their smartphones.
The greeting was worthy of a movie star. But sandwiched between security guards escorted down the center aisle were, in fact, the five leading faces – but not necessarily members – of the European Parliament’s right-wing «Europe of Nations and Freedom» faction (ENF).
Among them was the co-leader of Germany’s anti-immigration party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), Frauke Petry; the leader of the Front National and French presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen; the leader of the Dutch anti-Islam Freedom Party (PVV), Geert Wilders; the secretary-general of the Freedom Party (FPÖ) of Austria, Harald Vilimsky; and Matteo Salvini of Italy’s anti-EU Northern League.
Armed with their signs emblazoned with the names of each of the speakers, the audience thrust the paper placards into the air as each nationalist party leader took to the stage to share their vision of Europe’s future – continuing to do so throughout, at any particular moment of agreement, as if bidding at an auction.
Billed as a «European counter-summit,» the gathering in the western German town of Koblenz was a seemingly unlikely event. A group of nationalist, euroskeptic party leaders all meeting to discuss the one thing that spawned their common cause in the first place: the European Union and, more specifically, their desire to leave it.
During almost two and a half hours of speeches, the ENF used their platform to lay out their vision for the future of Europe: one with national decision-making, controlled migration, without the euro and without open borders.
«We are the start of a patriotic spring in Europe,» Wilders told the crowd, to rapturous applause.
«Yesterday a free America, today Koblenz, and tomorrow a new Europe.»
With Le Pen, Wilders and Petry all due to face elections this year, much of the rhetoric at Saturday’s conference was built on the anticipation of the triumph which is within their reach – not least of all in France, where Front National leader Le Pen is currently leading the polls.
Galvanized by the UK’s shock vote in June last year to leave the European Union, as well Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the US, Europe’s nationalists are more than content to ride the populist wave into 2017.
«2016 was the year the Anglo-Saxon world woke up. In 2017, I am sure, the people of continental Europe will wake up,» Le Pen told the cheering crowds.
«It’s no longer a question of if, but when,» she added.
Taking to the podium on Saturday, each of the nationalist party leaders slammed Europe’s handling of the ongoing refugee crisis, not least German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose open-door policy saw the arrival of some 1 million refugees since 2015.
«In France, Merkel is portrayed as a heroine,» Le Pen told a jeering crowd. «But no one asked the Germans what they think of this immigration policy,» she said.
«There are thousands of Italians without homes, electricity or heating, while thousands of immigrants are living in hotels,» Italy’s Salvini added.
Reiterating the common disapproval, Wilders – who is currently leading the Dutch polls – demanded that «Europe needs Frauke instead of Angela,» prompting chants of «Merkel out!» to reverberate in a deep chorus around the hall.
Petry in turn lashed out at the record refugee influx, slamming Berlin’s calls for tolerance «while hundreds of thousands, millions, of mostly illiterate young men from a far and partly violent culture invade our continent.»
Going into Saturday’s conference, Petry’s AfD was still polling at 11-15 percent – indicating that the party is likely to become the first hardline right-wing party to enter the German parliament since 1945.
‘Home will remain home’
But beyond the political and economic demands is a core theme of culture and identity.
Le Pen, known for her staunch determination to always speak French, stood by her linguistic habit on Saturday, condemning the ever-increasing presence of English in European universities as a sign of the «cowardice of our own elites who enable this capitulation of our cultures.»
«I love Germany because it’s Germany. I love France because it’s French,» she said.
Wilders, meanwhile, said the ENF refused to accept that «people have become strangers in their own countries,» before resorting to the bizarre claim that «our women are scared to show their blonde hair.»
«Enough is enough,» he said. Reassuring the guests, however, he insisted that there was «a light at the end of the tunnel.»
«The common people will be in charge,» he later told journalists. «Not the political elite.»
Echoing the sentiment of unity among the ENF, Le Pen said: «We’ve fought separately in each of our countries. But now we’re united … for the patriotism, sovereignty and identity of our nations.»
«Long live the nations of Europe!» cried Le Pen. «Long live the Europe of nations.»