Five years ago, Matteo Salvini was still a figure on Italy’s political margins. He had just been reelected as an Italian member of the European Parliament and was the recently installed leader of what was then known as the Northern League, a party that harboured dreams of splitting Italy’s industrial north from the rest of the country. In his youth, Salvini, who grew up in a middle-class Milanese family, had entered the party through a subsidiary communist cell.
But his beliefs considerably shifted: In 2014, when Salvini publicly acknowledged that he would be cheering the Italian soccer team at the World Cup, it was seen as a significant concession from a former separatist leader and a mark of a more expansive nationalist agenda.
Now, Salvini, 46, is Italy’s nationalist in chief, a deputy prime minister in a populist coalition government and the most powerful politician in his country. His far-right party is known simply as the League; Salvini dispensed with diatribes against poor southern Italian peasants in favour of a more vehement rejection of immigrants, Muslims, and other unwanted minorities. In doing so, the League has become the most influential right-wing party in the country, cannibalising support from the traditional centre-right.
Like President Trump and ultranationalists elsewhere, Salvini promises to put ‘Italians first’. And he marshals local resentment towards the policies of the European Union, railing against its cosmopolitan bureaucrats and what he calls rapacious bankers. This week, he roiled financial markets after suggesting that heavily indebted Rome would be willing to break EU budgetary rules that cap how much public debt member states can accrue.
“Europe makes sense if it acknowledges different cultures and identities,” Salvini said at a recent rally. “The EU cannot only be based on finance and business. That is not a dream, that is a nightmare.”
In a week’s time, Salvini may make the nightmare all too real for the European establishment. His party and a constellation of other far-right and Eurosceptic parties stand to make significant gains in European parliamentary elections. One estimate suggests far-right and anti-establishment factions could win as much as 35% of the vote, rivalling the major centre-right and centre-left blocs on the continent. But they may struggle for greater cohesion – though they share an aversion to immigration, nationalist and populist parties from different parts of Europe do not always see eye-to-eye on major matters of continental policy, including public spending.
But Salvini has positioned himself as the standard-bearer of Europe’s far right and is aiming to stitch together an expanded far-right bloc that could wholly subvert the EU’s parliamentary processes. He already has two leading European far-right parties – France’s National Rally and the Alternative for Germany – under his banner.
Far from seeking an exit from the European Union, the continent’s far right, led by figures such as Salvini, believes that a greater reckoning is on hand.
“Most of these far-right populist parties have understood that telling people they would leave the EU and the euro is scary,” Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on the extreme right at the Fondation Jean Jaurès think tank in Paris, told France 24. “And the example of Brexit adds to this: The British know what they want to get out of, but they have no idea where they’re going. So maybe the populists haven’t changed their minds, but they have certainly changed their discourse – from wanting to leave the EU to wanting to overhaul it from the inside.”
But Salvini’s real game is closer to home. In the European elections, the League will be competing against the party that is its coalition partner in Rome, the populist Five Star Movement. Though the latter came into power with the biggest vote share, its star has waned as Salvini’s and the League’s has risen. As the populist coalition struggles to enact the national reforms its parties promised on the campaign trail, the jockeying between the two camps is growing more intense.
“With its more straightforward law and order and anti-immigration message, the League has largely monopolised media attention and public debate – overshadowing the Five Star Movement,” Italian analyst Emiliano Alessandri said. “The party has attracted a growing number of voters who believe that Italy needs straight talk and tightfisted policies rather than solidarity and political correctness … A skillful politician that has never ceased campaigning in the streets and on social media, Salvini has become Italy’s leader, for now largely eclipsing all others, in particular Five Star Movement head Luigi Di Maio.”
Salvini “is using the vote for domestic purposes”, Daniele Albertazzi, a political scientist at the University of Birmingham, said to the Financial Times last month. “He wants to establish his narrative that Italy is at the heart of antiglobalist and anti-EU discourse, and that people have to look to him for leadership. That is more important to him than what actually happens in [the] European Parliament.”
Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York. © 2019, The Washington Post