A former British MEP is hoping to stage a return to the European parliament in June after being invited to run in Italy by the party led by the country’s former prime minister Matteo Renzi.

Sir Graham Watson, a Liberal Democrat, used to represent South West England between 1994 and 2014 and is running with the pro-European coalition Stati Uniti d’Europa (United States of Europe).

It was founded by Renzi and involves an alliance between his Italia Viva party and Più Europa, a party led by the former Italian foreign minister Emma Bonino.

Watson, who is married to an Italian and has Italian citizenship, has been given the top slot on the list of candidates for the coalition in the North-East Italy constituency, which represents cities including Venice and Bologna.

His chance of being elected was “50/50”, he said.

Success in the ballot would also provide people in the UK with proof there was still a place for them in the heart of Europe, a key message in the run-up to an election expected to deliver a change of government, he said.

Renzi and Watson on the campaign trail for Stati Uniti d’Europa in Verona. Photograph: Sir Graham Watson

“I think to be a Brit in the European parliament is a way of sending a message to British people: that other Europeans are not opposed to individual British people, they are opposed to the government which made itself thoroughly unpopular and disliked in the EU,” he said.

Though Watson, who was born in Scotland, was once the president of the ALDE group of liberal politicians in the European parliament, anti-European narrative in the UK meant that his work was probably better known in France, Germany and Italy, he said.

“I’m over 65 now, and it wasn’t in my life plan to go back. I wouldn’t have sought to do this,” said Watson, before explaining that the rise of the far right and the threat Russia that posed to the EU had compelled him to accept the invitation to stand in Italy.

“The need for liberals in the European parliament at the moment is greater than ever because what we are seeing across Europe is a sharp swing to the right,” he added.

The north-east of Italy is one of the strongholds of the far-right Lega party, which is led by the deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, who is an influential ally of Marine Le Pen in France.

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Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia party is expected to secure the greatest number of seats in the EU elections – held on 8 and 9 June in Italy – which concerns Watson.

“On the international stage, Meloni is very strategic, but look at what her government is doing in Italy,” he said, referring to threats to journalists and free speech at the public broadcaster Rai and a new law giving anti-abortion activists access to abortion clinics.

Meloni is also standing in the European elections, a move designed to boost her far-right Fratelli d’Italia and consolidate her position in the European parliament, potentially shifting the balance of power to an alliance between her party, Law and Justice in Poland, Vox in Spain, and the far-right Reconquest in France.

The parliament is made up of seven political groupings, with the centre-right in top place followed by socialists, with liberal parties ranking as the third biggest and the Greens in fourth place.

The size of the first three groupings has meant they have generally dictated the legislation of the five-year term. But the election of radical and far-right parties could tip the balance of power, particularly if there is a surge in support for Meloni, Le Pen and Alternative für Deutschland.

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