The League’s skew whiff leadership

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The complex interactions between the European Union and the Italian League. An analysis of the anti- European narrative promoted by Matteo Salvini

It was a typically mild French afternoon in mid July, in stark contrast to the usual Roman heat. In Strasbourg, the European parliament was about to vote on the commission president put up for election by the European Commission, the German Ursula von der Leyen. Less than an hour before the secret vote and the League, the Italian winner of the European elections in May, was at a crucial crossroads. Matteo Salvini’s party still hasn’t decided whether to back or reject the German defence minister, unknown to most until a couple of weeks earlier and whose majority depended on just a handful of votes.

The order from above was mouths shut as the 28 League euro parliamentary members avoided journalists and headed towards a room on the second floor of the labyrinthine Louise Weiss building, to set the party line. It was rumoured that the newly elected members would have liked to turn their back on von der Leyen, despite her being backed by the Italian government in the European Council. Those who had already spent time in Europe were rather more accommodating, having learnt that it took guts and a taste for compromise, if one wished to leave a mark in the European bubble.

Because that’s what the League’s electorate was asking its representatives to do: leave a mark in order to scupper European constraints. Let’s take a step back, to the months prior to the elections, when Salvini had waged war against the Union’s status quo. “After 26 May, everything will change in Europe”, he kept repeating like a mantra at his rallies. A change that was supposed to be in the name of common sense, in order to counter a dull and irrational Europe that with its negative attitudes was hindering the fulfilment of the government’s contract between the League and the Five Star Movement.

But was this really the case? The Commission and Council had stood by Europe’s system of checks and balances and called on the League and 5SM government to keep the state’s accounts under control. The result in this case had been that the scope of two of the main electoral ‘promises’ that the two governing parties had relied on for their success, the early pension plan (quota 100) and the citizen’s income, had been reined in without preventing the two parties from claiming the positive implementation of these flagship measures.

More significantly, the European counterweight system had managed to limit the Salvini effect and soften its more subversive aspects. Issues such as the overrunning of the 3% deficit/GDP target and the 130-140% debt/GDP ratio were a constant of the League’s permanent anti-EU campaigning. Salvini’s bluffing on the constraints imposed by Brussels had however been called out by the then newly elected minister Giovanni Tria, who at the press conference after his first EuroGroup meeting in June 2018 had mentioned the paths to be followed to reduce the structural deficit and contain public debt as being in Italy’s interests.

Tria essentially pointed out how the European regulations helped to provide an effective response to the external constraints posed by international investors, seeing as Italy was forced to operate on global financial markets. “This is the real limitation, or constraint, to our operations, not the thresholds imposed by the European Commission”, were Tria’s words, thereby admitting that this was the real obstacle and that EU rules could be seen as having a beneficial effect by forcing the government to comply with the external requirements if the country was to retain its competitive edge on the international stage.

But the idea of oppressive European bonds sits so easily in tweets and vitriolic press announcements, that Salvini engaged in a constant battle with Brussels. A case in point was the Interior Minister’s reaction to an EU Court of Justice ruling in mid May that established that refugees and asylum seekers could not be returned to their country of origin if there was reason to believe they would be at risk of persecution, even if they had committed a crime in the host country. The Luxembourg judges’ ruling had almost no effect on Salvini’s inflexible stance. He kept on claiming that migrants would lose their international protection if charged with a crime by the authorities of the country where they had obtained or requested asylum.

Yet Salvini had taken this as a cue to reassert that he was not going to back down on his security decree and that “migrants who rape, steal or sell drugs must be sent back home”. This was an example of the common sense that he wished to re-establish in Europe, despite the fact that the ruling placed no real limitation to the decree. Underlining the European constraint was also a way of bolstering Salvini’s image as a man “who was undeterred” despite Europe having it in for him. Even clearly illogical suggestions such as the idea of preparing for a unilateral review of the Dublin regulation, something that had no purpose, helped to instil in the voter’s mind the idea of two clashing factions: those who supported Italian interests and those intent on denying them.

If one steps back a moment to get a broader view, one notes how, instead of being the antagonist in Salvini’s narrative, the short lived Conte government had often found an ally in the outgoing Commission. It was open to dialogue, though it stood its ground regarding some of the measures the government strongly opposed and on Italy’s long-standing problems, such as low growth and high debt.

It has even held out a helping hand to Salvini’s League. In February the Minister Gian Marco Centinaio, a League stalwart, flew to Brussels to obtain the approval from the Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan for the measures introduced to support the price of Sardinian milk, usually considered state aid. The green light was given on the same afternoon and with no questions asked, for a move that proved decisive for the League’s victory in the Sardinian regional elections the following week.

The European constraints also enabled the League to bully its government ally, the 5 Star Movement, on a number of occasions. It only had to insist that “it was Europe’s call” to win out on two thorny issues such as the TAP gas pipeline and the TAV Turin-Lyon rail link. Two historic battles over which Grillo’s men had to engage in a painful rear-guard action and ultimately led to the unusual August governmental crisis.

The League’s exceptional success in the elections was supposed to force Salvini to develop his party line towards actively challenging European constraints, having stated his aim of achieving a greater impact during the next European legislature. This was meant to happen due to a shift to the right of the European parliament, or at least this was the original plan which fell flat when Salvini was unable to broker an agreement between the sovereigntists, the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Conservatives (ECR), a plan he had worked on during the previous months with the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Polish counterpart Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

And this brings us back to 16 July and the second floor of the Louise Weiss building and the room where the League’s euro parliamentary members agreed on their line: they would vote against von der Leyen, despite their appreciation for Ursula’s approach. In her address, she had mentioned flexibility of state accounts and European management of migration. She had of course also mentioned the need to save lives at sea, but had mentioned that the Dublin regulations needed reviewing, the very reform that Salvini was intending to introduce off his own bat.

The League would have liked to have been involved, even if just out of common sense, which would have meant voting in accordance with the government it was a part of. In actual fact, the decisive split within the League-5SM government actually took place on that afternoon in Strasbourg, when the 5 Star Movement backed the new president. The clash between the governing parties, which had been kept in check during the electoral campaign, now came to a head in the weeks following the election of von der Leyen, with a poisonous trail of accusations of treason which finally led to the August breakup. If Brussels had at times been used as a shield, and on some occasions as a bastion for Salvini’s policies, there’s no doubt it provided the spark that caused the strange marriage of convenience between the League and the 5 Star Movement to blow up in their faces.


This article is also published in the September/October issue of eastwest.

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