'We Cannot Be Stopped' Merkel's Toughest Adversary in Europe

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini is a populist and a firebrand, but also a fearless tactician. His hardline approach to migration threatens not only Angela Merkel's tenure as chancellor, but also the entire EU.
Demonstrator's in Italy hold a sign reading "Italians first."

Demonstrator's in Italy hold a sign reading "Italians first."


No stage is too small for him -- the man who has become the focus of European attention. The main thing is that he's in the spotlight.

With his top shirt buttons undone, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini faces the crowd in the small town of Ivrea, where he is -- officially, at least -- stumping for a mayoral candidate from his party. In fact, though, he speaks almost exclusively about himself and his role in global politics.

He is "as tired as a mule" but ready for a fight, Salvini calls out to his supporters gathered on the piazza. "The time has come to an end when Italy allows itself to be enslaved." It pays, he says, to be confident, adding that heads of state and government from other countries constantly tell him: "You just have to say: 'Stop, we are Italy. We are tired of being treated like garbage.' And people will be forced to listen to you; things will change."

It sounds cynical, but it's true. Without Italy, the euro would have no future, nor, likely, would the European Union. Without Italy, there can be no solution to the migrant problem and no agreement on the question that has become decisive for German Chancellor Angela Merkel's survival: Whether EU member states on the Mediterranean are prepared to take back asylum applicants who have traveled onward to Germany.

Much of the pressure on Merkel is coming from her own interior minister, Horst Seehofer, who has given Merkel until the end of June to find her favored "European solution" to the refugee issue before he carries out his threat of beginning to turn migrants away at Germany's border. The German chancellor is concerned that such a move could further fragment the EU and ultimately lead to the reestablishment of borders within the bloc.

But if anything, Sunday's refugee summit called by Merkel to search for a broader solution demonstrated that the process of fragmentation is quite far along. And Salvini has become emblematic of that process. He has said that Italy will not take in "one more" refugee and clearly demonstrated in recent days that he is in no mood to compromise.

Italy First

And in his recent campaign appearance in Ivrea, he didn't waste a single word on the problems Merkel is currently facing as a result of his stubbornness. In the future, Salvini only wants to accept proven war refugees and seeks to quickly deport the half-million illegal migrants currently living in Italy. "Italy cannot become a tent and barracks settlement," he said in Ivrea. "We cannot dump half of Africa on Italian soil."

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini: " They can attack us. They can insult us and threaten us. We cannot be stopped."

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini: " They can attack us. They can insult us and threaten us. We cannot be stopped."

Foto: Matteo Bazzi/ AP

Italy's new interior minister is a gifted demagogue. He constantly keeps the pressure on his adversaries and, no matter where he is, he speaks as if he were on the campaign trail and not as a statesman -- as the deputy prime minister of a country of 60 million in the heart of Europe. Since the parliamentary elections on March 4, Salvini has propelled his party, the right-wing nationalist Lega, to first place in the polls, having gained 12 percentage points in the interim. He has done so by spewing vitriol against immigrants, Roma and politicians like former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who "crawled around on their knees before Merkel and Macron."

Salvini has thus far dictated the new government's agenda, even though his party is ostensibly the junior partner. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who does not belong to a party, and election victor Luigi Di Maio of the Five Star Movement (M5S) are simply not able to keep up with the pace and tone of the Lega boss. Survey numbers seem to confirm that Salvini is not mistaken in his approach: Fully 72 percent of Italians support Salvini's stance on the refugee question. He has been adamant in his refusal to allow ships that have saved migrants from the Mediterranean to land at Italian ports and insisted that attention be shifted to the needs of Italians. "Prima gli Italiani," is his motto. Italians first.

On the European stage, Salvini has quickly risen to become Merkel's most powerful adversary. Observed from a distance, he is a populist who uses xenophobic positions and arch-conservative values to attract voters who have become receptive to simplistic political messages following years of economic crisis. From closer up, it becomes clear that Salvini is primarily that which many of his voters want to be themselves: self-confident, pugnacious and fearless.

Which is an accurate description of his bearing last Thursday, sitting behind his desk on the second floor of the Palazzo del Viminale in Rome, which is home to both the Interior Ministry and the prime minister's office. "In the coming months, it will be decided if Europe still has a future in its current form or whether the whole thing has become futile," he says. It sounds more like a threat than like an expression of hopefulness.

No Taboos

Despite having worked 18-hour days for months, Salvini appears surprisingly vigorous from up close. He looks at his interviewer directly in the eyes, doesn't dodge any questions and parses the world in accordance with his ally-enemy worldview. "Questi signori," these gentlemen, he says when talking about his adversaries. Or just "they," without being more specific.

"They can attack us. They can insult us and threaten us. We cannot be stopped."

Salvini knows no taboos. On June 19, he demanded the creation of a register of all Roma and Sinti living in Italy -- after years spent promising to bulldoze illegal Roma settlements. The country is thought to be home to some 140,000 Roma and Sinti, and Salvini wants to get rid of all of them who are not citizens of the EU. "Unfortunately," he said, "we have to keep the ones who are Italian."

The interior minister's hate, though, is also a means of distracting voters from the fact that the central promises made by the Lega-M5S governing coalition cannot be fulfilled: low taxes, minimum income for the needy, and a reversal of the pension reform passed in 2011 to help stave off the country's debt crisis. Italy is currently carrying more than 2.3 trillion euros in sovereign debt, which has led Salvini to focus on policies that cost no money, but which are supported by the populace. He has turned his ire against criminal Tunisians and the NGOs that fish migrants out of the sea off the coast of Libya. Indeed, his consistent critique of the influx of refugees closely mirrors the concerns held by many everyday Italians.

It is difficult to describe Rome's new strongman using conventional paradigms. He insists that viewing politics as a competition between the left and the right is no longer valid. He likewise has little use for proven alliances such as the EU and NATO. The Lega, which Salvini has led since 2013, maintains a partnership with Russian President Vladimir Putin's party United Russia, demands an end to EU sanctions against the country and admires U.S. President Donald Trump, whose victory he predicted early on. He is also part of the European Parliament party group to which French right-winger Marine Le Pen also belongs.

But who is this politician who is mounting a challenge to Europe at an extremely critical moment and who could ultimately cost Merkel the Chancellery?

Salvini was born in Milan in 1973 to a middle-class family and went to a high school that focused on ancient languages. He was only 17 when he first became a member of the separatist movement led by Umberto Bossi, then called Lega Nord. When he was 20, he tried to bridge the gap and temporarily became the leader of a list of "Communists from the Po Valley." He wore a Che Guevara pin and the logo of his list included the hammer and sickle. He was, in short, both left and right -- a precursor to his current partnership 20 years later with left-wing populist Beppe Grillo's M5S, an alliance he has sold to Italian voters as the beginning of a "post-ideological" era, the start of the "Third Republic."

As a young politician in Milan, Salvini inspected illegal Roma settlements, collected signatures in opposition to the construction of a mosque, and stood in front of the opera house distributing a book by star reporter Oriana Fallaci, in which she wrote that anyone who believes there is such a thing as "moderate Islam" is naïve. Even then, he didn't beat around the bush: "We wouldn't be too pleased if, 20 years from now, all the children in our schools were named Mustafa."

'Discounting Him Would Be a Mistake'

Shortly after graduating from high school, Salvini was elected to the Milan city council. "An exceptionally intelligent person, which means that he must be aware of the nonsense he spews. Back then, I liked him," says Pierfrancesco Majorino, who is today a left-wing member of the city council and responsible for social issues. He is also a supporter of migration and integration, making him a natural enemy of the interior minister. Majorino has known Salvini for a quarter century. "Simply discounting him as an unhinged lout would be a mistake. He knows exactly what he is doing."

Even back then, Salvini's politics were defined by his contrarianism. Early on, he was opposed to Italy and the exploitative centralized state that robbed the hard-working northern Italians of the fruits of their labor. Later, his ire was reserved for the EU and its representatives in Brussels who were, he said, seeking to establish a "Fourth Reich." He also railed against international finance, against global Islam and against migrants.

In parallel with the growth of his own importance, Salvini's targets also became larger. He used to focus on lazy southern Italians: "Do you smell the stench? Even the dogs are running away. The Neapolitans are coming." Now, though, he is targeting the rest of the world on behalf of all Italians.

Can he still remember being photographed wearing a pro-Germany T-shirt in 2006 on the day of the World Cup semi-final between Italy and Germany to express his rejection of the Italian state? Yes, Salvini responds, but those times are over. What about the time he refused to shake the hand of Italian President Azeglio Ciampi in Milan with the words "no thanks old man, I don't feel that you are my representative," because as a proud Lombard, he wanted nothing to do with Rome? And that he was sentenced to 30 days behind bars for throwing eggs at then-Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema?

He remembers all of it, but no longer wants to talk about it. "With Salvini, it's a bit like Picasso: He also had his rose period, his blue period and his Cubist period. Matteo has been a federalist, a communist, a separatist and now he is a nationalist," says a long-time companion. But more important than his ideological roots, he says, is Salvini's overarching goal: "He wants soon to become prime minister."

A 'Criminally Controlled Invasion'

The result being that these days, one can find Salvini -- whose trademark used to be the sweatshirt he wore everywhere -- sitting at the front of parliament in a suit and tie. Though if he gets bored, as he did during a recent speech by Prime Minister Conte, he'll get up and leave. He hasn't lost his bluntness, however, which became clear from his recent curt statement as to why he would not allow the refugee ship Aquarius to dock in an Italian port. He doesn't want to provide any support to the "criminally controlled invasion" of his country, he said.

An Italian navy vessel carries migrants rescued on by the ship Acquarius after Italy refused to let them come ashore in the country.

An Italian navy vessel carries migrants rescued on by the ship Acquarius after Italy refused to let them come ashore in the country.

Foto: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/ Getty Images

Matteo Renzi, the former prime minister who is now merely a senator, sits in the fifth row from the back, drumming his fingers nervously on the desk in front of him. It's almost as though he simply can't believe that Italy, which he had tried to return to Europe's center stage, is now being governed by such people. Renzi failed because he could hardly control his own party. Salvini doesn't have that problem. He has the full support of his party and can even count on the backing of the Nigerian-Italian Senator Toni Iwobi -- a black member of the xenophobic Lega.

One shouldn't harbor any illusions about Salvini. On one of his websites, he includes an apt quote from Clint Eastwood in the 1986 film "Heartbreak Ridge": "I'm mean, nasty and tired. I eat concertina wire and piss napalm and I can put a round in a flea's ass at 200 meters."

Back in 2015, Salvini told DER SPIEGEL that he had no intention of showing much consideration for German sensitivities. "The euro is a weapon of war," he said. "Wars can be fought with bombs or with currencies. This war was started by the Germans, because the euro benefits you and nobody else."

It seems unlikely that Salvini, now that he is deputy prime minister, will show much consideration for Angela Merkel's needs. He puts it like this: "To be honest, our political views -- and not just on the refugee question -- are quite far apart."

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