ROME — The campaign for the European Parliament elections in the spring of 2019 has not yet begun, but the main opposing forces have already drawn their battle lines. The elections will see the nationalist-populist axis running from Rome to Budapest squaring off against the pro-Europe progressives centered around Paris.

"There are currently two camps in Europe. Macron is at the head of the political forces that support immigration. On the other side, we want to put a stop to illegal immigration," Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban declared following his recent meeting with Matteo Salvini in Milan. "We will work together to create a future alliance to bring to the forefront the questions of the right to work, healthcare and security. Everything that the European elites governed by Macron refuse to talk about."

Macron is the ideal scapegoat.

The French president, on his visit this week to Denmark, offered his response: "It is clear that today there is effectively a strong opposition between nationalists and progressives, and I will give no ground to nationalists and to those who spread a message of hate. If they want to see me as their main opponent, they're right."

The French president has already been singled out as a favored target of the leader of Italy's League party, with Salvini looking to demolish the current institutional architecture of the European Union, and to renegotiate its treaties. Macron is the ideal scapegoat, allowing Salvini to deflect attention away from the difficulties of putting together Italy's next budget, and to mask the contradictions of his immigration policy.

French President Macron, the League's target of choice — Photo:

Indeed, Viktor Orban is unwilling to welcome even one migrant as part of the distribution plan, as his "hero and fellow traveler" Matteo Salvini would like. The latter preferred therefore to challenge France once again: "Macron should open the borders at Ventimiglia, stop giving lessons to others, and stop destabilizing Libya for his economic interests."

But Salvini's boasting and threats aimed at neighboring countries and at Brussels are beginning to sow the seeds of discontent within the Five Star Movement, the anti-elite party currently in coalition with the League. One of the Five Star Movement's leading figures, head of the lower house of Parliament Roberto Fico, is trying to disassociate himself from the policies of the troublesome ally. While Salvini's hardline on migration has helped ensure himself record popularity, it has come at the expense of the economic and social questions so dear to the Five Star Movement, and is in direct contradiction with the values held by the left wing of the party.

Discontent hasn't yet turned into revolt.

Declarations from Five Star members of parliament, calling for the "respect of the rule of law of a civilized nation" or an "end to measures which feed people's fear and hatred" have multiplied recently. Still, the rumblings of discontent building among its leadership hasn't yet turned into revolt. One explanation may be in the latest surveys of Five Star Movement's voter base: Over the past year, the percentage among the rank-and-file supporting Salvini‘s aggressive comments toward migrants has risen from 27% to 47%.

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