Untethered in Italy Salvini Pushes Country to the Precipice

With the approval of his partners in government, Italy's Matteo Salvini is lambasting the EU, foreigners and the press while at the same time quoting a fascist dictator. A tragedy with potentially wide-reaching consequences is unfolding at the heart of Europe.

A protest against Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini in Naples earlier this month
REUTERS

A protest against Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini in Naples earlier this month

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It's 11:15 on the morning of Monday, Oct. 16. Matteo Salvini briefly looks at his smartphone. He sees that the spread on 10-year government bonds has just surpassed the critical level of 300 points for the first time since 2013. The deputy prime minister, however, doesn't let it show.

The spread is considered the finance world's thermometer for determining sickness, a reflection of the state of the patient. The sick republic of Italy is in more than 2.3 trillion euros ($2.7 trillion) of debt. If the spread grows, the trust of the creditors shrinks, and servicing the debt becomes more expensive. But Salvini doesn't seem concerned about it.

He calmly listens to the blonde woman sitting beside him: Marine Le Pen. The two have been whispering sweet nothings to each other for a half-hour this morning like young lovers. He beams at her and speaks of their shared goals. She says she would almost blindly agree with what the man next to her says.

Salvini, the Italian from the political party Lega, and Le Pen, the Frenchwoman from the Rassemblement National -- are portraying themselves on this morning together in Rome as European populism's new dream pair. And they are announcing their willingness to fight the European Union in its current form. In principle, Le Pen says, she doesn't have anything "against Europe, only against a union that has developed into a totalitarian system." The true enemies of Europe, the Italian says, sit "fortified in their Brussels bunker."

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After upcoming elections for the European Parliament in May, Salvini and Le Pen want to create a "Europe of Nations" with like-minded politicians from other member countries. A preview of the future is on display right now in Rome, says Salvini, who has been interior minister and deputy prime minister since June as part of a populist coalition with the Five-Star Movement (M5S). "Our government of change could become a model for all Europe," he says.

In this belief, however, Salvini seems to be largely on his own. His government is being criticized both inside and outside of the country, accused of xenophobia as well as of trying to split Europe. Making things worse is the Italian government's reckless budget proposal, which is currently keeping the financial markets in suspense.

Salvini is responsible for these developments. He's the person driving this government, which is being led by Giuseppe Conte in name only. M5S, which won the election, is increasingly being turned into the junior partner in the coalition. Meanwhile, Salvini is driving the third-largest economy of the eurozone into uncharted territory, like someone at the wheel of a heavy truck who is pressing on the gas while taking the risk of driving his cargo into a wall.

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini: "Nothing and nobody will be able to stop us."
Mistrulli / Fotogramma / Ropi

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini: "Nothing and nobody will be able to stop us."

Italy's ports are closed, with no refugee allowed to dock? That's Salvini's doing. He's also the one who wants only those EU rules to apply that work in Italy's favor. And he's the one saying financial markets shouldn't be nervous about a few more billion euros of debt -- and that they should just wait a bit longer for the economy to swing back.

The man has guts. There is a fierceness in his resolve. He is talented at self-marketing and capable of reinventing himself in accordance with whatever direction the wind is blowing. Salvini was once fairly left-wing, then fairly right-wing. Only recently has he had the center in his sights. Those people constantly plying "with the specter of the spread," he argues, have their own self-serving motivations, and only want to make things sound worse than they actually are. He argues that there is a campaign, driven by speculators, "to bet on a country's collapse" so they can secure its booty at bargain prices.

A Nonstop Collision Course

Salvini is on a nonstop collision course, risking everything in the process. It's not only his country, but also the entire European architecture that could be damaged as a result. Whether it's EU bureaucracy or the representatives of the financial world, or left-wing "buonisti" (do-gooders) or criminal foreigners, Italy's interior minister is taking on everyone. On the late fascist dictator's birthday, he even tweeted one of Benito Mussolini's favorite sayings: "So many enemies, so much honor."

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker? Salvini claims he "ruined Europe and Italy." Besides, he says, the Luxembourger can barely stand up. "I prefer speaking with sober people." And the allies in the European Union? "The threats of the Germans and French don't affect me." He says that Rome will decide Italy's course: "We will carry out our plan and we only feel accountable to the Italians."

It's as if one of the founding, core member-states of the European Union has become a laboratory experiment -- with the goal of either returning powers to its member nations or splitting up the alliance.

Italy was to submit its budget proposal for 2019 to the European Commission by midnight on Oct. 16. Shortly after that, the ratings agencies Moody's and Standard & Poor's are expected to weigh in on the budget. Italian government bonds are currently only two levels above junk. If their creditworthiness is further downgraded, it would have devastating consequences. At the end of 2018, the European Central Bank (ECB) is to stop buying up government bonds. Its president, the Italian Mario Draghi, has been preventing even more serious financial bottlenecks in Rome for almost four years, at the expense of the European savers.

Can Salvini, Prime Minister Conte and M5S Head Luigi Di Maio read the writing on the wall? It doesn't seem like it: The government program includes additional expenditures of up to 37 billion euros for 2019 alone. Instead of sinking to 0.8 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), as planned, new debt is to increase to three times that. Last Tuesday, Banca d'Italia, Italy's central bank, the Court of Audit and the International Monetary Fund issued warnings about the consequences of this spending policy.

What is currently happening in Rome is akin to a pre-announced killing spree. Italy's net debt burden is, in absolute numbers, the third-highest in the world, and is, measured in the context of its economic performance, more than double what is allowed in the eurozone. Nevertheless, according to the Ipsos research institute, Salvini's and Di Maio's plan, which seeks to finance government handouts with ever higher debts, is creating elation among voters.

That may have to do with the fact that many Italians don't read any newspapers -- at least not foreign ones. Romano Prodi, former head of the Italian government and the European Commission, however, is aware of the country's critical situation internationally. Prodi says the people in power in Rome are behaving like the "owners of an entire country." He argues that an old Naples saying offers a guide for dealing with Brussels: "He whose derriere is barely above the ground shouldn't dance ballet." And Italy, he says, "currently has its derriere hanging very low."

One thing that is clear in these chaotic days in Rome is that the euphoria of the enthusiastically tweeting, posting and talking government leaders is a far cry from the dire analyses of those in the EU who are sympathetically, but cool-headedly, observing Italy -- the country with the lowest economic growth in the bloc. They are watching as Deputy Prime Minister Di Maio celebrates a budget financed on credit as if Italy had just become the world champion in soccer for the fifth time.

The only things more over the top than the M5S politician's triumphant gestures and tirades ("This Europe is at its end") have been Salvini's appearances after his decree on "security and immigration" was signed by the president. That's when Italy's interior minister fanned out on Facebook and on TV as if wanting to confirm the beliefs of those who think he is a megalomaniac. He spoke of himself in the third person -- "the decree from this villain of a deputy prime minister" -- and sent on-camera kisses to his critics.

'Closed Ports, Open Hearts'

"Closed ports, open hearts," is the description Salvini gives of his government's immigration policy. He has reduced the number of refugees arriving in the country in 2018 to 21,000, a decrease of four-fifths. He patronizingly tells the men and women with the aid organizations heading toward Libya with rescue ships that they are welcome to fish for hake, but the number of refugees they are allowed to bring into Italy? "Zero."

Salvini always seems to be in campaign mode: And it's he himself who foments, at least in part, via sophisticated Facebook and Twitter posts, the very fears he promises to fight. Web strategist Luca Morisi, a former professor at the University of Verona, came up with the idea of touting the far right as down-to-earth defenders of the fatherland. Over 3.2 million people now follow Salvini on Facebook -- a record among European politicians.

He's also the first interior minister in the history of the Italy being investigated for unlawful detention and abuse of authority because he didn't allow 177 refugees on a boat in the harbor of Catania to disembark. Salvini is "proud" of this, arguing that if it is a crime to defend the interests of Italians, then he is happy to be arrested.

The restless interior minister is described by critics as a "suburban bull" and as a "merchant of fear." Former center-left parliamentarian Furio Colombo even described Salvini as "the Italian Eichmann" -- the modern equivalent of an organizer of the Holocaust. These kinds of lapses are welcomed by Salvini. "To be insulted by do-gooders," he says, is something he considers to be an honor.

"Selfini," as his opponents describe him for his fondness for taking photos with voters, now leads with his Lega party in all public opinion polls in the country. Within seven months, the party's popularity has doubled to 34 percent. Salvini has managed to move from the far right into the middle of society -- though it looks like the voters have also moved toward him.

The left, which was in power until March, plays almost no role anymore and is in the process of picking itself apart while Salvini lures in voters with catchy messages. A new security decree has implemented drastically stronger rules for asylum-seekers who have committed or are suspected of crimes. When it was being presented, Prime Minister Conte looked like a sidekick standing next to the interior minister. Later, on Salvini's Facebook page, Conte had completely disappeared from the photo.

Salvini says the prime minister is "a fantastic man," and, without blushing, adds that "I am happy he is the one who has the fate of the country in his hands." In truth, Conte is merely the buffer between the two unequal coalition partners, who are trying to push through their billion-euro election promises despite all warnings. Both have an eye to a potentially triumphant result in the European Parliament election in May, with Di Miao promising nothing less than a political earthquake.

That's why 780 euros are to be paid out to 5 million socially disadvantaged people before the election. Then there's the planned lowering of the retirement age, of which 400,000 Italians would stand to benefit -- elderly people who, as Salvini polemically stated, "hardly had time to be grandparents" in the past "because they wandered directly from work to the grave." And on top of this, tax cuts are planned for small and midsized businesses.

How is all this to be financed? By basing the calculations on only vaguely described savings measures and dizzying growth predictions -- "exaggeratedly optimistic" targets, as the parliament's budget committee says.

But these kinds of objections do little to stop Salvini. He says he isn't Jesus -- "I cannot propagate bread or fish" -- but that he is willing to give the Italians back their pride and optimism. His recent visit to Mussolini's model city of Latina south of Rome, where thousands of assembled followers cheered him on, demonstrates the kinds of yearnings Salvini satisfies. During his visit, the minister wore an Italian police uniform shirt and promised: "When we stand together, we can do great things" and "nothing and nobody will be able to stop us."

Later, in front of a Mussolini-era war memorial with a fascist eagle, he added: "One should have the courage to say that Mussolini didn't just introduce bad ideas like the race laws."

Accomplices and Rebels

Are critics, like Jewish author and TV host Gad Lerner, right when they say that Italy is currently in "a fascist maelstrom"? The cult surrounding the boorish and polemic minister is cause for concern. Bestselling author Roberto Saviano goes so far as to accuse Salvini of currently attempting "the ultimate transformation of Italy from a democracy into an authoritarian state."

Saviano, who became famous with his anti-mafia book "Gomorrha," which sold over 10 million copies, is considered in Italy, depending on your perspective, as either the strongest voice of warning or the most eminent denigrator of his own country. Saviano, who has lived under police protection since 2006 because of repeated death threats, directed an appeal to Italy's artists and intellectuals in July. "Why are you hiding?" he asked. With the Salvini/Di Maio government, he argued, people must take sides: "There are only accomplices or rebels."

Roberto Saviano (third from left, with microphone), writer and journalist, during an event together with Mimmo Lucano, the mayor of Riace (second from left). When it comes to the Salvini/Di Maio government, Saviano says, "There are only accomplices or rebels."
Enrico Mattia Del Punta / NurPhoto / ddp

Roberto Saviano (third from left, with microphone), writer and journalist, during an event together with Mimmo Lucano, the mayor of Riace (second from left). When it comes to the Salvini/Di Maio government, Saviano says, "There are only accomplices or rebels."

Salvini has launched a lawsuit in response to Saviano's labeling of him as the "minister of the underworld." He has also threatened to cut off the writer's police protection. When Domenico Lucano, the mayor of Riace, a village celebrated as a symbol of the successful integration of migrants, got arrested earlier this month on suspicions of "facilitating illegal immigration," the interior minister crowed, "Who knows what Saviano and the do-gooders who want to fill Italy up with immigrants will say now?"

The interior minister earns thundering applause whenever he says, "Instead of filling my town with migrants, I would try to find work for the Calabrian youths, so that they no longer need to leave the country." But the Riace case makes for poor evidence as a major example for growing xenophobia. The country's changing pulse cannot be measured in the spotlight of the cameras or in individual incidents. Things are changing slowly, but throughout the country. What was once taboo is now being discussed increasingly often -- in the safe space of the internet, but also in the public sphere.

"Racism in Italy is on the rise -- it is dangerous and disturbing, but also, of course, has to do with demographic and social phenomena," says Luigi Manconi, a left-wing former senator and human rights activist. "Within the scope of 25 years, 800,000 foreigners in Italy have grown to almost 6 million. And, of course, it's hard to imagine that racism isn't also being spread along with it."

A Difficult Negotiating Environment

It's hard to contradict the claim that the Italians have placed their trust in a "resolutely euroskeptic and xenophobic government." But the fact that this statement comes from a French member of the European Commission who is actually in charge of economic issues, makes it more problematic. Pierre Moscovici and his constant attacks on the government in Rome are making the upcoming negotiations with the European Union that much more difficult.

The relationship between Rome and Brussels currently resembles two trains speeding toward each other. Insults are traded on an almost daily basis, despite the fact that both sides know Italy is dependent on the goodwill of the European Union and, conversely, that the bloc cannot be a politically efficacious alliance without Italian participation and, last but not least, that the country is crucial to the success of the euro.

Salvini believes this conflict situation can actually increase his bargaining power. That's why he's forcing Economics Minister Giovanni Tria to defend a budget plan in Brussels and in the Italian parliament that, according to the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, is essentially permission to carry out a "stagecoach robbery" -- a violent procurement of cash.

Minister Tria is the tragic figure of the day. At a reception held at the German Embassy in Rome on Oct. 3, he defended the "ambitious project of the common currency." Before and after the speech, he was humiliated by his fellow cabinet members Salvini and Di Maio like few other economics ministers before him. When he sought to explain himself, he was simply left standing alone, or his microphone was turned off.

The fact that Tria hasn't resigned yet is the product of the discreet actions of Italy's president. White-haired grand seigneur Sergio Mattarella is doing everything he can to avoid damage being done to Italy. He asked renowned economist Tria to remain in the cabinet to calm the financial markets. He welcomed ECB head Mario Draghi for a crisis talk and conferred with the leading figures at the Bank of Italy.

The bank's apparently frustrated general director recently sounded the alarm in a speech at the University of Venice. Italy's problem, Salvatore Rossi said, "cannot be solved by putting the state in further debt." He said that the "countless untruths" currently being spread include the claim that the Italian economy will flourish if the country isn't placed in a financial straightjacket by "Europe, because of German stubbornness."

If the crisis gets worse, the people who would suffer the most would be Salvini's fellow citizens. They hold two-thirds of all Italian debt securities. The more the state debt grows, the more they and their inheritors' substantial private wealth will lose value. Salvini knows this but is pretending as if none of it matters to him. When he talks of state debt, GDP or spread, he makes a face like he is touching dirty laundry.

The majority of Italians still back him. Italians are known for loving their politicians a lot, but that love is also very often fleeting. Mussolini's body was ultimately put on display for the people of Milan and spit upon. Socialist Bettino Craxi, the shining light of the 1970s, was pelted with coins on his way into exile in Tunisia. Matteo Renzi, who was at first welcomed as a savior when he took office in 2014, ultimately fell from power less than three years later as a result of a referendum and was swamped by derision.

During his appearance with Marine Le Pen, Salvini said he didn't want to have as sad an ending as his "predecessor" Renzi. Of course, Renzi was a prime minister. Salvini is officially still only interior minister. It is in spirit only that he has arrived at the top.

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