KOBLENZ, Germany -- European nationalist leaders came together Saturday in a show of strength at the start of a year of big election tests, celebrating Donald Trump’s inauguration as U.S. president and declaring themselves a realistic alternative to the continent’s governments.
Right-wing populist leaders from France, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and elsewhere strode confidently into the Koblenz congress hall on the banks of the Rhine River ahead of a flag-waving escort, setting the tone for a gathering whose mood was buoyed by Trump’s swearing-in. The European parties hope for similar success in tapping anti-establishment and protectionist sentiment in elections this year.
“I believe we are witnessing historic times,” Dutch anti-Islam leader Geert Wilders told reporters. “The world is changing. America is changing. Europe is changing. And the people start getting in charge again.”
Wilders, speaking in English, declared that “the genie will not go back into the bottle again, whether you like it or not.”
The Netherlands will provide the next major test for populist parties’ support. Wilders’ Party of Freedom could win the largest percentage of votes in the March 15 Dutch parliamentary election, even though it is shunned by other parties and unlikely to get a share of power.
Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right National Front, is among the top contenders in France’s April-May presidential vote. In September, Frauke Petry’s four-year-old Alternative for Germany party hopes to enter the German parliament in a national election, riding sentiment against German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcoming policy toward refugees. Other German parties say they won’t work with the anti-immigrant group.
Those at the Koblenz conference Saturday are part of the Europe of Nations and Freedom group in the European Parliament, which was launched in 2015. The gathering also featured Matteo Salvini of Italy’s anti-migrant Northern League and Harald Vilimsky, the general secretary of Austria’s right-wing Freedom Party, which last year narrowly failed to win the country’s presidency.
Trump “is a winner, we are winners: Frauke Petry, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, all of us here are winners,” Vilimsky told an audience of around 1,000.
Speakers also denounced “political Islam” and Europe’s common currency, the euro, which Salvini labeled “a failed, criminal experiment.”
Le Pen reveled in Trump taking power in the U.S., months after Britain voted to leave the 28-nation European Union in a referendum that she hopes to emulate.
“2016 was the year when the Anglo-Saxon world woke up. And 2017, I am sure, will be the year of the awakening of the people of continental Europe,” she said.
She denounced the EU as “a force of sterilization” and assailed Merkel - whose name was booed loudly - for allowing in large numbers of asylum-seekers last year.
Le Pen praised Trump for what she said was a clear position on Europe: “He will not support a system of oppression of the people.”
“We are experiencing the end of one world and the birth of another,” she said. “We are experiencing the return of nation states.”
Petry said “just as Donald Trump in America shows the way out of a dead end, with new prospects - including for (resolving) international conflicts - we want to do that in the coming months and years for Europe.”
The leaders sought to portray their focus on nationalist priorities that don’t necessarily converge as a virtue rather than a weakness. Le Pen lauded “the coherence that we have, above and beyond our differences, which we like.”
“By definition, each of us wants to be the master at home. We want our people to be masters at home, so we don’t want to align ourselves on a single policy for everyone,” she said. “That is exactly what unites us - that is why we are fighting against a European Union that wants to squash us, that wants to eat us all in the same sauce.”
Le Pen added that Trump was elected on the back of many of the ideas the European nationalists hold dear, pointing to “common accents” with what they have long said in his inauguration speech on Friday.
“We have fought, at first separately in each of our countries and now united, together, a whole series of great values: the nation, control of our borders, the defense of our people, patriotism, sovereignty, the defense of our national identities,” she said.
Despite the talk of unity, there is unease among some in the Alternative for Germany party about aligning with Le Pen’s National Front due to her protectionist economic policies, Joerg Meuthen, the AfD’s co-leader, told the Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland newspaper group.
Some 5,000 demonstrators gathered outside the congress center in Koblenz, singing the European anthem “Ode to Joy.”
Elsewhere in Koblenz, demonstrators from the global AVAAZ activist group placed statues of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Josef Stalin, among others, in front of a landmark statue of German Kaiser Wilhelm.
AVAAZ organizer Pascal Vollenweider said the statues of the dictators were meant to send a “strong message” to the nationalist politicians’ meeting that “global citizens are rejecting their old dangerous ideas.”
“They are not fascists in jackboots, it’s a different type of fascism, of course. But if you look at the ideas ... it’s very dangerous, and we have to face it,” he said.mselves a realistic alternative to the continent’s governments.