20th Jan 2019


Salvini is gambling with core voters' future in budget battle

  • Having 'won' the Italian elections in March and entered into government with the Five Star Movement, the League under Matteo Salvini (centre) is now trying to expand its appeal in the south of Italy (Photo:

The Italian government, which is currently at loggerheads with the European Commission over its proposed budget, is often lumped together with other anti-globalists and eurosceptics.

It does indeed share some of these features, such as antagonism to neoliberalism, longing for a strong nation and fear of foreigners.

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  • Salvini's anti-euro rhetoric is seriously worrying exporters in Italy - even those industrialists in the north of the country who supported the party when it was still known as the Northern League (Photo: European Parliament)

But the alliance between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and the far-right League also represents something completely new.

Both parties were founded in protest against political elites.

However, whereas M5S is a product of the financial crisis and the left's failure to provide alternatives, the League is the latest update of a political movement which has evolved over the last 30 years.

It started very locally, at the foothills of the Alps, as a protest against perceived cultural marginalisation, and is now becoming the dominant rightwing party nationwide.

The League's (formerly known as the Northern League, until its rebranding earlier this year) transformations are thus key to understanding the state of play in Italian politics.

The prevailing moods within the party may indeed make or break the euro.

"Pressure from businesses in northern Italy is the only thing that can persuade the League to avoid a full confrontation with the EU. And at the moment they are certainly not very happy," says Lynda Dematteo, a professor of anthropology at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris.

Dematteo has studied the League through years of fieldwork among party members.

The League has its roots in Italy's ancient 'Carnivalistic' tradition - whereby the lower classes could joke openly about the elites, she claims. It is about turning everything upside down in an attempt to re-establish a lost order.

As for instance last week, when the League's MEP Angelo Ciocca took off his shoe to physically slam the commission's dismissal of Italy's budget for 2019 in front of a stunned Pierre Moscovici.

"This is a typical gesture of the League," Dematteo told EUobserver, "the insult as a gesture of cultural and political impotency. They do it without using words, just shaking up symbols. It is not even spontaneous, they prepare these things."

Northern discontent

"The League is trying to pick a fight with Brussels to satisfy its lower-middle class voters. But the business world is anything but happy right now. And the League has always wanted to be the main interlocutors of entrepreneurs. It is absolutely essential in the North," says Dematteo.

Political uncertainty has already meant lost orders and investments for many businesses, says Francesco De Bettin, who is chief executive officer at Dpa Group, a thriving and recently-listed engineering company.

"Since the elections our shares have lost 20 percent of its value," De Bettin complains in the Italian news magazine Panorama.

"You cannot tell a company like mine, which generates 40 percent of its income abroad, that leaving the euro will only cause temporary distress. It means that businesses like this will have to close tomorrow morning."

What is at stake for thousands of small and medium-sized business in northern Italy is, primarily, their role as suppliers to German industry - which has gained an even greater importance since carmaker Fiat moved much of its business abroad.

The province of Treviso, where Dpa Group is based, exported as much as the whole of Greece exported to Germany in 2017.

To protect these interests many are starting to look for a moderate wing within the League in opposition to Matteo Salvini's leadership and the 'shoe-slamming approach' in Europe.

Observers identify the League's Giancarlo Giorgetti – who holds a central, but generally unnoticed, position as first under-secretary to the Council of Ministers – as the voice of reason within the government.

But since Salvini took over from the League's founder Umberto Bossi in 2013 - in the wake of a scandal involving the embezzlement of party funds - he has streamlined and radicalised the party's politics and ideology.

"There is a clear rupture," says Dematteo. "After the financial scandals in 2012, the League could no longer pretend to be more honest than the others. Salvini had to re-establish trust in the party.

"He has managed to do so with a constant presence on (League broadcaster) Radio Padania, which is very important to the League's electorate, and by approaching nationalist parties in Europe, primarily Marine Le Pen's National Rally (previously the National Front, before it - like the League - was rebranded) in France.

"The League has lost its specificities and moved closer to other populist parties. This has completely changed the ideological platform and the modalities of representation.

"Salvini has occupied the space left behind by the post-fascist National Alliance, knowing that Silvio Berlusconi is getting old and that there would be more space up for grabs."

Ties with neo-Fascists

The need to consolidate these gains – in the polls, the League is now Italy's largest party, overtaking government partner M5S – should suggest that the party will try to reach a compromise with the EU.

However, according to Antonello Caporale, a journalist at the Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano and author of the bestselling book 'Matteo Salvini - The Minister of Fear', pressure from northern industrialists will have limited impact.

"The fact that most of the League's parliamentarians are still elected in the North gives you the idea of a party still linked to that part of the country," Caporale told EUobserver. "But Salvini has managed to create a party where the strong ties with local communities in the North mean a lot less.

"The majority of the League's voters will be quite happy with what they can get in the short term: a bit of racism, the flat tax and a lowering of the retirement age."

According to Dematteo, overtly-nationalist views have gained more influence in the party.

"Salvini has strong ties with neo-Fascist groups in Milan," she says.

"When he was the leader of the party's youth organisation in the city in the beginning of the 2000s, he organised an anti-migration march together with neo-Fascist hardliners Forza Nuova (New Force), which I attended as an observer. This is a rather specific case, because many members of the League in provincial towns consider themselves to be anti-Fascists. But Milan was different, ties existed. And today with Salvini's League, concerted actions with neo-Fascists take place all over the country."

Bridgehead in southern Italy

This has allowed the League to gain a foothold in southern Italy, which until recently was the target of much scorn from the party.

"The South is a pot of gold for the League," says Antonello Caporale. "They received five percent at the last elections, but could easily increase that by 10-20 percent. Transforming the League has brought Salvini votes and lots of luck."

In January 2012, Sicily was blocked off from the Italian mainland when lorry drivers, farmers and the unemployed protested against EU-imposed austerity. Organised crime was believed to have taken an active role in what was then labelled the 'Pitchfork Movement'.

The following year the protests spread to other parts of Italy, and according to Dematteo, this was an important step in Salvini's transformation of the League.

"He has succeeded in using rebellious energies, that already exist in the country, for his own purposes," she says. "Both the League and the neo-Fascist organisation Casa Pound took part in this movement."

Salvini even chose to symbolically represent the League's new nationwide approach by standing as a candidate in Rosarno, a town in Calabria, the southernmost region on the mainland.

This was the place where in 2009 young representatives of the powerful global crime syndicate the 'Ndrangheta provoked a riot by shooting at the migrants who work as exploited fruit pickers in the area.

Shortly after the new Italian government was sworn in this year, another migrant was shot and killed in the area.

"Rosarno is a very particular case," says Dematteo. "In 2009 the police had to intervene to avoid a pogrom, so there is lots of tension. And then there is the question of the 'Ndrangheta clans. The League's connections with the 'Ndrangheta emerged with the 2012 scandals. So why did Salvini prefer to run in Rosarno, knowing how elections work in places like that? It is a bit strange."

Striking inconsistencies

Salvini has made considerable efforts to connect with the Italian mainstream, for instance by posing bare-chested on the cover of glitzy magazines.

"The myth of the strong leader may be ridiculous, but it works in times of crisis," Dematteo claims.

Reuters has reported that a special software, called 'The Beast', helps Salvini and his team to calibrate frequent postings on social media according to the fluctuating moods of internet users – to determine when to blast out far right messages, when to use more subtle 'dog-whistling', and when to try to seem reassuring.

This summer Salvini took a swim in front of the cameras, just like Benito Mussolini used to do - but the pool he chose to cool off in was a swimming pool on a Tuscan estate which the state had confiscated from a convicted mafia boss.

"The League is almost schizophrenic on this issue," observes Dematteo. "The 'Ndrangheta clans have infiltrated many provincial cities in northern Italy when the League has been in power at the local level.

"This is a serious problem, which should also cause alarm outside Italy. The League's traditional anti-mafia discourse has almost worked as a kind of omerta [the code of silence used by the mafia]. They are saying 'we are not mafiosi', but meanwhile the mafia is creating new strongholds in their communities. This is one of the most striking inconsistencies I have observed while studying the League."

An audacious gambler

In recent months the League has come under scrutiny for money laundering, and the courts have ordered it to pay back €49m of taxpayer's money.

According to the Italian news magazine L'espresso, the League's accountants have set up holding companies in Luxembourg – which, ironically, is only possible because of legislation introduced by Jean-Claude Juncker while he was prime minister there before becoming commission president – in order to ensure a steady cash-flow.

"When the EU presents itself with a face like Juncker's, nobody should feign surprise that Italy ends up being represented by someone like Salvini," says Antonello Caporale.

"The slogan on his website,, is 'audacious, instinctive and out of control'. That is how he is. He is a gambler, who will try to take his challenge to the European establishment as far as possible".

The clash with Brussels ahead of the European elections next year is "a very risky strategy," says Dematteo.

"This new government in Italy and the direction it has taken worries me. What the two parties share is anti-globalism, anti-parliamentarism and anti-bureaucratic stances.

"These issues have always been part of the League and M5S, which in some ways justifies the strange alliance. However, we must not lose sight of the mixture of left and right wing issues, which is typical of fascism.

"They are trying to make the EU seem responsible for the country's decline in order to obtain as many votes as possible. This is very risky for both Italy and the EU".

EU commission rejects Italy's budget plans

The EU executive has asked Italy to resubmit its budget in an unprecedented rebuke, while warning Rome that public debt was the "enemy of the people".


What Salvini teaches us about Operation Sophia

It seems as if the EU and some member states are trying to 'sell' European external action in Italy, Austria, Poland and Hungary as a key to solving internal issues – and thus pulling these missions into today's populist debates.

ECB takes over ailing Italian bank

Decades of mismanagement appear to have caught up with Italy's Carige bank as the European Central Bank takes control in a move to stave off another banking crisis.

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Poland and Italy's right-wing rulers are to cement their "special relations" in Warsaw, in what could make Salvini's anti-EU group a major force in the EP.

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