Last week a teacher in Palermo, Italy was suspended from her job because some of her students made a video comparing Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s anti-migrant measures with Benito Mussolini’s antisemitic “race laws.” Educator Rosa Maria Dell’Aria had not suggested any such comparison to her class of fourteen-year-olds, but after intelligence police paid a visit to her classroom she was punished for the students’ “defamation” of Salvini.
The episode illustrated how ugly Italian public debate has gotten under the sway of Salvini. Yet the Lega leader, who is also deputy prime minister, has sought to portray himself as an innocent martyr, under attack from leftist multiculturalists. At a rally in Milan last Saturday he identified his bid to “save Europe” with not just Pope John Paul II but even a litany of saints.
Such a resort to the rosary beads is uncommon in today’s Italy. It would have been odd even in the latter decades of the long-dominant Christian Democrats, and in Salvini’s case is seemingly unconnected to real religious devotion. Yet at the Milan rally it was also tied to a wider reactionary agenda, as the Lega leader presented a series of far-right leaders from around Europe to his own flock of faithful believers.
The Lega used to promise a referendum on Italy’s euro membership, but now promises to change Europe from within. Its polling numbers would seem to put it in a strong position. After scoring 17 percent in last March’s general election, it has rallied so many center-right voters (notably from Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia) that it may claim over a third of the vote in tomorrow’s election for the European Parliament.
Yet while Salvini has recast liberals as the “real euro-skeptics,” the bid to change the European Union from the far right looks rather underwhelming. On the day of the Milan rally, Salvini’s main Austrian ally resigned after being caught in a sting, in which he offered favors to a pretend Russian investor. At the same time, far-right parties from Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (present in Milan) to Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz (which was absent) remain divided on central issues of economic and migration policy.
That’s not to deny the rise of the far right: Salvini’s partners will undoubtedly increase their vote compared to the last contest in 2014. But while able to exert pressure on the center, Salvini’s party plans neither to quit the EU nor to govern it. Rather, its line is shaped by the desire for symbolic clashes with “Brussels,” throwing red meat to its base while outcompeting other forces in the center right.
In Opposition, In Government
In fact, this stance — a rhetorical opposition to the EU, combined with compliance with its rules — has precedents in the Lega’s history. Indeed, it long took the same approach to the Italian state itself. Previously known as the “Northern League for the Independence of Padania,” the party fiercely championed Northern “autonomy” even while taking part in the national government — demanding only more cash for its own base.
If the Lega Nord identified the enemy as “thieving Rome,” it had its own ministers in the capital, too. In 1994–95, 2001–6, and 2008–2011, it took part in Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition administrations, at the same time as it built regional strongholds in Lombardy and Veneto. The alliance with the billionaire tycoon often broke down. But even when they were in coalition, the Lega Nord adopted the rhetorical posture of an opposition movement.
This was most notably illustrated by the antics of the Lega’s Luca Zaia. The vice governor of Veneto from 2005 to 2008, he spent the next two years as a curiously dissident agriculture minister in Rome, even protesting outside his own department to demand more funds for Veneto, before his successful 2010 run to be its governor. The project was not to break up Italy but rather to use its institutions as a platform to build up regional strongholds.
Under Salvini’s leadership the Lega have maintained their call for regional autonomy, but also gone beyond this, standing in all regions and becoming an Italian nationalist party. Their stance condemning “Brussels” in defense of Italy now takes the place of its onetime denunciation of “Rome” in defense of the North. Indeed, we see this in Zaia’s region itself — a once-poor part of Italy that enjoyed rapid growth in the postwar decades and is now closely integrated into the circuits of German industry. There, eurozone integration has squeezed low-tech manufacturers. Yet if these make up the Lega’s base, they have little appetite for euro exit, which would mean default, the destruction of savings, and possible barriers to trade.
The Lega thus express the rage of businessmen who suffer the competition imposed by EU integration, but without risking any actual rupture. The disputes surrounding the party’s attempt to appoint a euro-skeptic as Europe minister, and that concerning the Lega–Five Star government’s budget deficit, allowed Salvini to posture as an Italian nationalist “standing up to Brussels” before rapidly folding.
When the European Commission slapped down Italy’s spending plans, Salvini posed as aggrieved — his 15 percent flat tax rate had been thwarted. In reality, this policy would imply a possible €100 billion in reduced state revenue and is alarming even to the Five Star Movement, today in coalition with the Lega. Yet even without fulfilling this policy, by loudly demanding it (and blaming Brussels, or his government allies, for blocking it), Salvini can harden his own party’s base.
Back to the Polls
For two decades a mainstay of Berlusconi’s election platforms, it is sadly possible that the “flat tax” may one day become a reality — Salvini claimed Thursday: “If we are first in the European elections, I won’t be demanding more ministerial armchairs but tax cuts,” which he deemed the priority example of “Italian interests.” Yet Five Star will struggle to swallow such a grossly reactionary policy (i.e. massive tax cuts for the rich) and the Lega itself only holds one in six seats in parliament.
The furious debate surrounding the plan has intensified the speculation that the Five Star–Lega government might fall. Public rows between Salvini and Five Star leader Luigi di Maio have mounted, not least over the case of Armando Siri, a Lega under-secretary of state for transport, forced from office on May 8 after he came under police investigation for corruption, despite Salvini’s bid to save him. At the same time, the Lega (polling double its 2018 election performance) would seem to have cause to break the coalition and grab more seats in parliament.
Without doubt, Salvini’s public criticisms of his allies are aimed at leaving this option open — and the “flat tax” could be his pretext. But there are also reasons not to. Despite having just half as many seats as the M5S, the Lega dominate the government, and a split now would risk upsetting a situation that is still entirely to Salvini’s advantage. Moreover, while it would be hard for any other majority to form, the end of this coalition would not automatically spark elections.
For Salvini the great prize is to become leader of a united Italian right. In regional contests in central-southern Italy, from Abruzzo to Sardinia, the party has made unprecedented breakthroughs, and is hoovering up activists and funds from Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. It was a surprise in 2018 when the Lega beat Forza Italia, 17 percent to 14. They now lead the party in national polls by around thirty-two points to eight, and in tomorrow’s elections will be the biggest party in Italy for the first time.
In this sense, it may finally create something long absent in Italy — a single conservative party. Now “open for business” in the South, too, the Lega have raked in all manner of opportunists, entrepreneurs, and crooks. Yet this also shapes what kind of party they are. While Le Pen’s Rassemblement National have a protectionist, “welfare-chauvinist” edge, rhetorically defending “French workers” against immigrants, the Lega are far more simply a party of business, if galvanized by a harsh nationalism.
A Divided Europe
Rassemblement National, today set for victory in the French part of the European elections, have joined Salvini’s party in a common “European Alliance of Peoples and Nations” group. Each of them have significantly watered down their past calls for a break from the EU. Yet their differences also show the difficulties in replacing this with a common front to reform the EU: rather, they rail against Brussels for the purposes of their own domestic party politics.
At Salvini’s rain-soaked rally in Milan, with a surprisingly dismal turnout, the forces of the European far right did not, in fact, seem all so impressive. The Lega leader wanted to defend European (white, “Judeo-Christian”) identity, but Eastern European leaders hostile to Putin were notable by their absence, and Geert Wilders was present to “represent” the Netherlands rather than the now-far-more successful far-right leader Thierry Baudet.
Even beyond the “Russian question,” the big hitters of the European far right are divided by both economic and migration policy. This problem was already evident at a previous meeting in Milan in August, when far-right Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán visited Salvini. The Lega leader has long railed against the Dublin Agreement, which commits refugees to stay in their country of arrival in the EU (often meaning Mediterranean states like Italy), calling instead for the continent to share them out.
Yet for a country like Hungary (landlocked, and literally walling itself off from its non-EU neighbors), Salvini’s proposal would mean having to take in refugees: something its government has thus far angrily rejected. Like Austria’s recently collapsed hard-right government, Orbán’s objective is to block any change to the Dublin Agreement and make sure Italy and Greece do indeed keep immigrants on their own soil. The Hungarian leader did not attend the Milan rally.
At the same time, Europe’s far-right parties have radically opposed views on public spending. Beyond their varying degrees of economic protectionism (for instance, Spain’s Vox is overwhelmingly directed to middle-class fiscal conservatives, while Le Pen has at least an element of statist protectionism), there is also a split over borrowing: while far-right parties in the wealthier countries of the West and North generally heap blame on free-spending, “lazy” Southerners, these latter complain about the fiscal straitjacket imposed by Brussels.
Salvini himself calls the dominant liberals the “real Eurosceptics,” insisting a more relaxed budgetary approach would better serve a “Europe of nations,” free to set their own spending plans: yet this is precisely what the far right in Germany, the Netherlands, or Austria seek to avoid. In short, while Salvini now talks of reshaping Europe rather than breaking it up, he and his allies have no common agenda.
No Way Out
Polls suggest the Salvini–Le Pen alliance will become the fourth largest bloc in the European Parliament, perhaps winning a little over 10 percent of seats — less than the liberals and about a third more than the Greens or the radical left. Though suspended from the Christian-Democratic European People’s Party, Orbán’s Fidesz remains outside the alliance, as do forces like Five Star and Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. The parliament will remain dominated by the centrist, federalist parties, albeit further weakened.
Indeed, the far right’s influence lies not in its numbers in the Brussels parliament — or still less the possibility of Italexit, Frexit, or Nexit, considerably diminished amid Britain’s difficulties — but rather its national-level electoral pressure on mainstream liberals and conservatives. The European border regime is harshening not because Salvini pulls the strings, or is about to, but because “centrist” leaders are outsourcing migration control to North African dictatorships.
Clashes with Brussels do nonetheless serve Salvini’s purposes, and a triumph in this Sunday’s election could provide a springboard to a further national-level success. Fresh elections will surely bring an even more Lega-dominated government. Yet Italy is not about to leave the EU, nor is the far right about to take over the bloc’s leadership. Rather, the vote will be the umpteenth nail in the coffin: a further stage in an endless slide, in which the chauvinist climate becomes more violent and the forces of social solidarity and internationalism are weakened.
Seventy-two percent of Italians say their financial situation has worsened since the country joined the euro; polls consistently show they think their membership is a “bad thing,” but large majorities would vote against actually leaving. The EU plows on through inertia, for fear of the abyss. Yet with the bloc’s legitimacy continually on the decline, and no apparent force to promote its regeneration, the deepening popular cynicism promises to give rise to yet more Salvinis, and not only in Italy.