REGGELLO, Italy — 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.” Ms. 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, 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 European Union, like the president of the European Commission, the union’s executive arm. They might also gain enough power to block budgets and trade deals.
In voting that began on Thursday and ends on 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 — notably Russia. But they are united in their hope for an electoral breakthrough that could disrupt European politics.
Some defenders of a liberal Europe say the fact that populists have had to give up previous visions of quitting the European Union altogether was itself a significant victory for the embattled bloc. Like in the United States, different ideological visions are now being debated within the political framework.
“We should not pretend that the populists will have the power to tear everything down,” said Eugen Freund, a social democratic member of the European Parliament from Austria. “The pro-European parties will still have a majority and the European Parliament will still be overwhelmingly pro-European — and then we will have those who will make the most noise.”
The risk is that a noisy and empowered nationalist bloc might disillusion Europeans further and eventually force the union apart.
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.
In addition to passing or rejecting laws, European lawmakers have powers that could allow populists to block trade deals, approve the bloc’s budget and play an important role in determining who will replace the European Union’s most powerful leaders.
Some of those running for a seat in the Parliament even vow to do away with it altogether: The far-right Alternative for Germany party, for one, says it wants to shut down this “undemocratic” chamber and repatriate all legislative powers to national capitals.
A cursory look at populist election manifestoes across the Continent reveals pledges that would do away with the European Union in all but name.
In France, Ms. Le Pen’s National Rally wants to close down the European Commission, the bloc’s executive body. The AfD in Germany wants to disempower the European Court of Justice, which has been a source of recourse for those fighting democratic backsliding in places like Poland.
Austria’s Freedom Party, which was ousted from power just last week, wants to cut both the Parliament and the Commission in half.
Poland’s nationalist government is lobbying for a “red-card” system whereby a grouping of national parliaments can band together to block planned legislation in the European Union.
In Italy, Matteo Salvini, the League’s powerful interior minister and self-styled leader of Europe’s international alliance of nationalists, has reeled off a long list of planned attacks, from challenging the European Union budget and fiscal rules to closing Europe’s borders.
Addressing a crowd in Milan last weekend, Mr. Salvini urged Europeans to “free the Continent from the illegal occupation organized by Brussels.”
The track record of populists in the European institutions to act effectively, let alone band together, is poor so far.
Ms. Le Pen’s party stands out for a disastrous record in the European Parliament: few legislative successes, votes against France-friendly measures, and hundreds of thousands of euros in fines for misusing European Union money, principally to fund party activities in France.
Across Europe, populist candidates have been making their pitch to voters in colorfully hostile terms.
Jörg Meuthen, the AfD’s main candidate for the European Parliament, called the European Union a “pretty sick patient” who has got “too fat” and suffers from “excessive regulation syndrome.”
In Poland, where nationalist election posters tout their nation as “the heart of Europe,” the deputy leader of the ruling Law and Justice Party, Antoni Macierewicz, framed the election as “a choice between the gay-lesbian-German option or the patriotic option.”
Ms. Le Pen perhaps went furthest in spinning out an elaborate metaphor when she compared Europe to the admirable invention of aviation and the European Union to a poorly managed airline, which she said needed to be “radically” changed.
The planes on “European Union Airways,” as she put it, were not just overpriced but “dangerous” and “polluting,” and came with “stowaways.”
“We no longer want this European Union,” she said.
Back in Tuscany, Ms. Ceccardi repeatedly expressed admiration for Ms. Le Pen and other European populists. At another campaign event, she mocked liberals who dismissed nationalists like her as “anti-European.”
“When they tell us, the European candidates: ‘You’re against Europe,’ I say no, darlings, we are against this European Union, which is very different from Europe,” Ms. Ceccardi said before launching into her favorite subject: immigration.
“Europe was not born with the European Union,” she said in an interview. “Europe was born in the fifth century B.C. with democracy in Greece, with the Roman Empire,” and when Europe defended itself against certain types of invasions.
The invasions she was referring to were from Muslim armies, and as far as she was concerned, Europe was facing another invasion today.
“If I go to another country to exploit its resources, take advantage of work opportunities and then import my own cultural model, then I am no longer an immigrant — I am an invader,” Ms. Ceccardi said later.
Five months pregnant, she is considering naming her daughter Kinsika after a heroine from Pisa who is said to have defended the town from the “Saracens” — a term used by Europeans in the Middle Ages for Arab and Muslim people.
“When we travel or walk around some neighborhoods in Brussels, and even in our big cities, it doesn’t even look like we are in Europe anymore,” Ms. Ceccardi said.
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