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Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini speaks during a news conference at the Viminale in Rome, Italy, June 25, 2018. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

(reuters_tickers)

By Ilaria Polleschi

PONTIDA, Italy (Reuters) - Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy's right-wing League which is surging in opinion polls, said on Sunday he wanted to expand its success to create a pan-European association of like-minded, nationalist parties.

In a keynote speech at the League's annual gathering in countryside north of Milan, Salvini said the League would govern Italy for the next 30 years, receiving rapturous applause from thousands of flag-waving supporters.

"To win we had to unite Italy, now we will have to unite Europe," Salvini said. "I am thinking about a League of the Leagues of Europe, bringing together all the free and sovereign movements that want to defend their people and their borders."

The 45-year-old, plain-speaking Salvini is on the crest of a wave, with the League now commanding about 30 percent of support in opinion polls and vying with its coalition partner, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, as Italy's largest party.

Since an inconclusive March 4 election when 5-Star took 32 percent and the League 17 percent, Salvini has dominated the political agenda with an aggressive and popular campaign against immigration.

When Salvini became leader in 2013 of the movement then known as the "Northern" League, it was reeling from a corruption scandal and had only about 5 percent of voter support.

"What we have managed to do this year, next year we will do at the continental level," Salvini said, in reference to elections for the European Parliament in May 2019.

In his efforts to build a network of right-wing, nationalist parties around Europe Salvini has cited France's National Front leader Marine Le Pen, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, among others.

Salvini, deputy prime minister and interior minister in the coalition that took office on June 1, said with its tough line on migrants and in negotiations with the EU, the government had done more in a month than its predecessors had done in 6 years.

"Each one of you is my brother and my sister, the children of each of you are my children," Salvini told the crowd before closing his speech with an oath, clutching a string of rosary beads.

"Will you swear not to give up until we have liberated the peoples of Europe?" he asked, receiving a unanimous "yes", in response.

(writing by Gavin Jones, editing by Louise Heavens)

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Reuters