Tuesday

22nd Oct 2019

Feature

Salvini hosts anti-EU 'summit', as old ghosts haunt party

  • Milan payed host to far-right and anti-EU parties from 11 countries on Saturday (Photo: @legasalvini)

"This is a historic moment to free the continent from the abusive occupation organised in Brussels for many years by traitors, such as Merkel, Macron, Soros, Juncker," Italian far-right League party leader Matteo Salvini said in Milan on Saturday (18 May).

"They have built a Europe of high finance and uncontrolled immigration", he added, while kissing a Roman Catholic cross which he was holding in his hand.

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  • 'The Captain' - Matteo Salvini (c) - has also posed in police uniforms to boost his popularity (Photo: Matteo Salvini/Facebook)

Salvini was referring to the German and French leaders, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, and to George Soros, a philanthropist at the centre of far-right anti-semitic conspiracy theories.

Salvini spoke to people who had flocked to the Piazza del Duomo, Milan's main square, ahead of the European Parliament (EP) election later this week.

He had predicted that 100,000 people would come to his campaign event, but far fewer did so, in part due to rain.

Far-right parties from 11 other EU member states did attend to show solidarity with the Italian politician, however.

The guest list included the head of the French National Rally party, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Dutch Freedom Party, Geert Wilders, and one of the co-leaders of the German AfD party, Jorg Muethen.

It also included representatives from the far-right Finns Party, the Danish People's Party, Vlaams Belang (Belgium), Volyia (Bulgaria), Sme Rodina (Slovakia), the SPD (Czech Republic), and Ekre (Estonia).

Almost all these parties had already signed up to Salvini's new EP axis - the European Alliance for People and Nations - first unveiled in Milan on 8 April.

"Our aim is to be the biggest group in the European Parliament," he said at the time.

The leader of Austria's far-right Freedom Party (FPO), Heinz-Christian Strache, was also meant to be in Milan on 18 May, but he resigned as Austria's vice-chancellor the same day after secret video footage implicated him in a corruption scandal.

Strache was replaced by an FPO MEP, Georg Mayer - and guests avoided any mention of the fiasco.

"We need to decide if we want to continue to be invaded and Islamised", Mayer said on stage at Salvini's event.

The AfD's Meuthen called on the crowd to "defeat the troika of technocrats" who "destroyed our Europe", referring to EU officials who supervised financial bailouts.

The nationalists all sang from the same hymn sheet in Milan in vilifying banks and multinational companies, in raising the alarm on the so-called "Islamisation of Europe", and on the allegedly "uncontrolled flow of migrants" - but they voiced differences on what to do about it.

Last year, Meuthen's AfD attacked Salvini's League for having boosted welfare spending, cutting the retirement age, and increasing Italy's deficit.

The "crazy budget law is at the expense of Germany", Alice Weidel, another AfD co-leader said in October.

And the clash on fiscal discipline has shown little sign of going away.

Rule-breaker

"If we need to break some limits, like the three-percent or the 130-140 percent, we'll go ahead," Salvini said in Verona earlier in May, referring to EU deficit and debt limits.

"We'll spend everything we have to spend, and if someone in Brussels complains, we'll get over it", he also said.

"We don't want to pay for Italy's debts", Austria's far-right finance minister Hartwig Loeger, replied at the time, in an echo of the AfD's position.

Salvini's remarks also triggered a reaction on financial markets.

Moments after his Verona speech, the gap between Italian and German 10-year bond yields grew to 282 basis points - a three-month high.

Italy already has the second-highest level of debt in the eurozone after Greece, in a situation set to deteriorate as the Italian economy shrinks this year, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based club of wealthy nations.

Italian finance minister Giovanni Tria has tried to calm investors and EU officials.

Salvini needs to find €23bn extra in next year's budget in order to fulfil his spending promises.

He also needs to do it while cutting income tax and without raising other taxes, such as VAT, if he is to keep his word to Italian voters.

The Italian coalition government - formed of the League and by the 5 Star Movement party - have so far introduced a 15-percent flat tax on businesses with incomes below €100,000 a year.

Salvini now wants to extend the flat rate to families who earn fewer than €50,000 a year, in a move set to cost Rome's treasury €12bn to €13bn a year.

However, the architect of the League's flat-tax project, senator Armando Siri, has failed to inspire confidence.

Rome's public prosecutor recently opened a probe into allegations that Siri took a €30,000 bribe in return for lobbying on behalf of energy firms in a case with links to the Sicilian mafia.

And the ruling coalition's prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, sacked the senator even though Salvini tried to defend his man.

But despite criticising EU budget rules and promising to violate them, Europe has not been at the centre of Salvini's electoral campaign.

Italy First

Over the last weeks, the Italian deputy prime minister has been travelling throughout his country in what he calls his "Italy First Tour", in an echo of US president Donald Trump's "America First" slogan.

At the core of his speeches there is always one topic - blocking migrants by closing Italian ports to NGO rescue ships.

"Less departures, fewer arrivals, fewer deaths," Salvini has been saying.

The number of arrivals and deaths did fall dramatically in 2018 and 2019 compared to previous years.

But the percentage of deaths compared to the total of arrivals is on the rise amid Salvini's anti-NGO rescue policy, according to UN data.

Salvini's European election campaign has seen him visit up to three cities per day to speak to crowds in public squares.

It has also seen 'The Captain', as his supporters call him, face accusation of using fascist symbolism.

On 4 May, Salvini sparked protests after giving a speech in Forli, a city in northern Italy, from the same balcony in which Italy's World War 2 fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, had watched the killing of political opponents.

Salvini has also often quoted Mussolini's pet phrases, such as "me ne frego" (meaning "I don't care"), "chi si ferma è perduto" (the one who stops is lost), and "molti nemici, molto onore" (many enemies, much honour).

When challenged by reporters on his allusions, Salvini said: "I prefer democracies and hate any sort of dictatorship, but we must admit the achievements made during the 20 years" of fascism in Italy.

Italians will elect 73 MEPs on 26 May.

According to the polls, the League will win the most votes and more than quadruple the number of its EP seats.

The party currently has just five MEPs, only two of whom - Angelo Ciocca and Mara Bizzotto - are running again.

The League has 72 candidates in total.

Salvini himself is one official candidate, though he is unlikely to quit his post as Italian deputy prime minister and interior minister no matter what happens.

League controversies

Three of the other best-known candidates are Angelo Attaguile, Antonio Maria Rinaldi, and Silvia Sardone, but all of these are linked to controversies.

Attaguile, who is 72, is running for the Islands constituency - Sicily and Sardinia.

Before joining the League, he was a member of Democrazia Cristiana and Movimento per le Autonomie, two centrist parties that have now lost their popularity.

Born in Sicily, Attaguile was chosen by Salvini in 2015 as the senior representative of League in the south of Italy, an area were the party had never received many votes in the past.

The League has made headway in the region thanks to his help.

But the public prosecutor's office in Termini Imerese, a Sicilian town, has accused Attaguile of buying votes.

According to judicial documents seen by EUobserver, the vote-buying happened in the 2017 regional elections in Sicily, when the League obtained 5.6 percent of the votes - an astonishing result, given that it was the first time the party had run for election on the island.

Attaguile immediately stepped down as the League's coordinator in the south.

But he has vehemently denied the allegations and Salvini has put him forward in the EP race despite the ongoing fraud investigation.

Euro exit off agenda?

Rinaldi, who is 64, is one of the League's candidates for the central Italy constituency.

The son of a banker and an aristocrat, he teaches political economy at the Link Campus University in Rome, and has in the past advocated Italy's exit from the euro.

An "ad hoc committee" of public institutions and private firms should manage a return to the old national currency without first holding a referendum on the issue, according to an article by eurosceptic economists which Rinaldi published on his blog in 2015.

"Of course" he said when asked in 2016 if Italy should quit the euro.

"We would have big advantages by doing so. We are under an economic dictatorship and we are going to become colonised by the north of Europe," he told Libero, an Italian daily at the time.

He has softened his cough since announcing that he was to run as an MEP.

"The euro must be at the service of the real economy and not a rigid dogma, based on absurd rules", Rinaldi recently told Androkronos, an Italian news agency

The League's more moderate tone on the single currency does little to massage the image of some of its top people, however.

Mafia links?

One of Salvini's most popular candidates in the north of Italy is Silvia Sardone, a 36-year old from the Lombardia region.

She used to be in Forza Italia, the party of Italy's former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, a convicted fraudster.

She joined the League in April saying it was "the only [party] capable of profoundly changing the European Union", but back in March 2018, when she was still in Berlusconi's team, she was helped in her electoral campaign by Antonio Maiorano, a drug trafficker.

Maiorano was sentenced to 21 years in jail for drug smuggling in 1997. According to his sentence, he was part of a criminal group that sold cocaine and heroin and was also guilty of illegal possession of firearms.

The drug group was headed by people belonging to 'Ndrangheta - one of Italy's more powerful mafias.

Maiorano helped to get Sardone elected according to his own statements on Facebook, which he never contested, but according to his more recent social media posts in the run-up to the EP vote, he does not support the League's star candidate any more.

Author bio

Stefano Vergine is an Italian journalist who also writes for L'Espresso, a leading weekly news magazine.

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