Salvini Puts Italy on a Collision Course With Europe

Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister and the country’s most powerful politician, has called for early elections, but will have to deflect a poor economy and allegations of links to Moscow.

Matteo Salvini sits at a desk as he meets with other Italian lawmakers.
Remo Casilli / Reuters

It was always a matter of time before Italy’s government—the first populist coalition in the heart of Europe—ran out of steam.

The liaison between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the right-wing populist League party has been less a marriage of convenience than a rather transactional fling that’s kept on flinging for 15 months in spite of many ideological differences. Power is a strong aphrodisiac.

But even though the League’s Matteo Salvini—Italy’s interior minister and deputy prime minister, the brightest star in European right-wing populism—has been de facto running the country for quite some time, it was still a jolt, and more than mere political theater, when he decided to pull the plug yesterday evening, paving the way for snap elections. A jolt because no one—not even Salvini—has any clue how this will play out. “He’s playing with fire,” Stefano Folli, a columnist for the Italian daily La Repubblica, told me.

He’s also playing with consensus. Salvini has been on permanent campaign since coming to power—including a tour this summer of Italian beach resorts, where he DJ’d and snapped selfies with bikini-clad supporters—and the League is now polling at about 38 percent. The Five Star Movement, ostensibly the senior partner in the coalition government, has plummeted to about 17 percent. The League would likely win new elections, or at least garner enough votes to form a far-right coalition, and this would open a new chapter: a euroskeptic, apparently philo-Russian, effectively far-right government in power in a pillar of the European Union. Salvini’s decision to bring down the government now not only sets Italy on a collision course with Europe; it also pits Salvini’s populist rhetoric against economic reality.

One of the most chameleonic and social-media-savvy politicians in the world, Salvini’s big themes are defending Italy’s borders against what he calls an “invasion” of undocumented immigrants—“Italians first” is the League’s motto—and defending Italian sovereignty against the bean counters of the EU who he says have effectively emasculated Italy with their irritating rules. He isn’t exactly calling for Italy to leave the euro—although he did in 2014, and now commentators are calling on him to clarify that once and for all—but both the League and the Five Star Movement have capitalized on a protest vote. Italian growth has been stagnant for years. A majority of Italians feel Italy has suffered under globalization and the euro. The economic anxiety is real.

When Salvini announced at a rally yesterday that it was time to end the government and let Italians choose, he amped up the rhetoric even further. “I will live and die a free man, not as a slave to anyone,” he said, referring to the EU. He said he wanted Italy to return “to what our grandparents left us”—apparently meaning the postwar economic-boom years before the euro. “We don’t want to go to Brussels with our hats in our hands,” he said.

Salvini’s advisers say he made his move now so that the League could have full control over a budget bill that under normal circumstances Italy should pass by the end of the year, after submitting it for European approval, although the deadline is not binding. The League has been pushing for a flat tax, while the Five Star Movement has promised a universal basic income—a contradiction not easily resolved. But the budget bill could be politically toxic, and if it isn’t passed by the end of the year, the country would have to impose a sharp increase in value-added tax to meet spending commitments made by the current government. Italy has the lowest growth forecast of any EU country this year.

In his speech, Salvini said he was sick of how the Five Star Movement had been blocking legislation that he argued was needed to kick the economy into gear. This week, Parliament approved a bill to move forward with a high-speed-rail line connecting Turin and Lyon. In what had become the most visible symbol of their discord, the League supported the bill on the grounds that it was good for business and for the economy, while the Five Star Movement opposed it on the grounds that it was useless, did environmental damage, and so many large Italian public-works projects become mired in corruption.

The Five Star Movement’s nominal leader, Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, was nearly in tears after Salvini’s announcement; he said on television that his coalition partner had “put polls before the interests of the country.” The government had been hard at work doing things, he said, a message echoed by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, a weak caretaker who this week grew a spine and said that Salvini would have to go before Parliament to answer for why he had decided to withdraw from the coalition. Salvini, Di Maio said, was on the beach for two weeks, then came back and brought down the government, accusing it of not working. “It seems a bit surreal,” Di Maio said.

There’s certainly something strange in the timing of Salvini’s decision. He could have pulled the plug in July, before Parliament went on recess, without causing a crisis over the August holiday. Instead, Salvini made his announcement just hours after BuzzFeed News’ indefatigable Alberto Nardelli, along with the investigative outfit Bellingcat and The Insider, a Russian site, dropped yet another scoop. They published documents showing that a close aide to Salvini and one of his foreign-policy advisers has made multiple trips to Russia since 2017, trips that do not appear on the transparency logs of Salvini’s interior ministry.

This latest piece followed an earlier scoop from BuzzFeed News, in which it published audio recordings from a meeting in Moscow last fall in which a close associate of Salvini is heard negotiating an energy deal that would route funds to the League ahead of elections for the European Parliament. There’s no evidence the deal happened, but the allegations are damning, and prosecutors in Milan have opened an investigation.

Salvini, who has expressed vociferous admiration for Vladimir Putin, has not answered questions from journalists about the allegations, and has also refused to appear before Parliament to address them. At his rally yesterday, he deflected and said that the people who took “wagonloads of rubles” from Russia were the Italian Communists of yore, during the Cold War. But there may be an element of desperation here, in which Salvini is acting out of weakness as much as out of strength. It may be easier for him to respond to the Russia allegations in a campaign rather than in government. “Now he can say, ‘They’re attacking me because I’m running in elections,’” Folli, the political commentator, told me.

In Italy, members of Parliament have immunity from prosecution and have been embroiled in countless scandals. That’s partly why the Italian electorate is so cynical, why the anti-establishment Five Star Movement did so well in the 2018 national elections, and why it proposed a bill to reduce the number of national lawmakers. This was supposed to have been put to a vote on September 9. Such a vote would have delayed elections further, potentially another factor in why Salvini acted now.

It’s not entirely clear what happens now, and when. Parliament, which is on recess, must reconvene to hold a vote of no confidence before the government is declared dead. Only if no other viable coalitions emerge can the president call snap elections, which would likely be in the fall.

If Italy does vote, the only things that would stop Salvini and his League from coming to power are Salvini himself (though it’s unlikely he’d change tacks now; losing face would be a huge defeat); an economic collapse (but markets have already factored into a lot more turmoil than Italy’s lately); or a judicial investigation into him and his party. The last of those could certainly weaken him, but if the years of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi taught us anything, it’s that investigations don’t stick, especially when there is little functional political opposition, as is the case today for Salvini.

There is a final element that could hurt Salvini: humiliation. But the more the press and some Italians mock him for his bare-chested beach tour, the better he looks in the eyes of his followers. They like him. His message resonates. While his political opposition is mired in infighting, he’ll court his voters on the beaches—paunch out, cross around his neck, one selfie at a time. When they come back from the beach and look at their bank accounts, and their tax bills, that’s when the real election campaign will begin.