Salvini’s main legacy will be the legitimisation of xenophobia

Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigrant rhetoric is a bigger threat to liberal democracies of Europe than his euro-scepticism.

Salvini Reuters
Rather than moving towards the centre, since taking on the role of the country's de facto leader, Salvini pushed his far-right rhetoric even further, writes Mammone [Reuters]

On December 8, the League, the far-right party led by Italy’s Interior Minister and Vice Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, organised a major rally in Rome. Around 200 buses and three trains were arranged to bring supporters from all over the country into Piazza del Popolo, where the demonstration was being held.

When “the captain”, as Salvini is known among his supporters, arrived, speakers started to blast out the notes of Nessun dorma (None shall sleep) – an aria from the final act of Giacomo Puccini’s famous opera, Turandot. “Vanish, o night! Fade, you stars! Fade, you stars!” the tenor sang, “At dawn, I will win! I will win! I will win!”. The choice of music, of course, had a symbolic meaning. It was an attempt by the supporters of the League to tell everyone in the country that Salvini, and no one else, was the ultimate “winner” and de facto leader of Italian politics in 2018. 

And Salvini really did win big in 2018. After all, the League – once a scandal-ridden, far-right regional movement stuck around 4 percent of the vote – managed to secure 17 percent of the vote at the March 4 general election under Salvini’s leadership and made the 45-year-old politician Italy’s kingmaker. A couple of months later, the populist Five Star Movement – which won the Italian election with 32 percent of the vote –  reached a deal with Salvini’s League to form a coalition government. By June, Salvini was already the most influential politician in Italy and a major cause for concern in Brussels. 

A total rejection of Europe?

When the Five Star – League coalition was formed, many in Europe believed that the new formation will be nothing more than yet another democratically elected  “anti-system” executive power in the Western hemisphere. They assumed, once in power, Salvini, who previously promised to deport 500,000 immigrants if elected, called Islam a “threat” that is incompatible with the constitution, and was filmed saying Italy needed “mass cleansing”, would be forced to soften his rhetoric.

This is why, in Europe, concerns about Salvini’s election victory focused on his anti-European Union stance, rather than his far-right, xenophobic ideas. Many voiced their fears about the governing parties’ ever-increasing criticism of Brussels’ version of Europeanism, and questioned whether Italy may soon pose a serious threat for the future of the union.

Some analysts even claimed that the eurosceptics have already “won” Italy and that Italians fully rejected the European Union and its “impositions” by electing parties like the League and the Five Star. For example, on May 16, Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics and international relations at the University of Kent, published an article in the conservative British daily Telegraph wrongly arguing that “Italy’s new populist government shows it’s not just British voters questioning the EU dream”. Days later, one of Britain’s most prominent Brexit campaigns, Leave EU, promoted the article on its official Twitter account, with the comment “Professor [Goodwin] sums up the crisis in Italy perfectly: elites are hollowing out our democracies and it’s no surprise that ordinary people are mobilising to beat the establishment!” 

But despite some European pundits and prominent Brexiteers believing Salvini’s success is a confirmation that Italy is now a virulently euro-sceptic nation, the truth is a lot more nuanced. 

At the moment Italian attitudes towards European institutions are less “questioning” than expected. A European commission survey published in November 2018 showed that, across member states, the overall trust in the EU currently stands at 59 percent. Meanwhile, the latest Eurobarometer published in December demonstrated that 64 percent of Italian citizens believe that membership of the EU is something positive, while only 15 percent view it negatively. A year ago, the share of Italians viewing the membership positively was only 49 percent.

In other words, while Salvini undoubtedly succeeded in making the most extreme eurosceptic viewpoints mainstream, the Italian public’s support for the EU is not fading at an alarming rate under his rule.

Legitimisation of xenophobia

While Salvini’s Italy does not appear to be an imminent threat for the future of the European project (at least for now), another major aspect of his tenure – mainstreamisation of xenophobia – should cause alarm across Europe and beyond.

In its first six months in power, the League – Five Star coalition already managed to disprove all academic theories claiming that extremist parties would become more moderate once they take part in national governments. On the contrary, rather than moving towards the centre since taking on the role of the country’s de facto leader, Salvini pushed his far-right rhetoric even further, and increased his popularity while doing so.

Just 10 days after he was appointed interior minister, for example, he made international headlines by refusing docking rights to the NGO-run Aquarius rescue boat, which had 629 refugees and migrants on board. While the move attracted international condemnation, it greatly boosted Salvini’s standing in Italy. Public opinion polls show support for the League has jumped from 17 percent to about 30.

In October, the northern Italian town of Lodi, governed by Salvini’s League party, did something that would be unthinkable in Italy only a couple of years ago – it implemented an apartheid-type resolution denying free school buses and meals to children of non-EU migrants. Salvini personally congratulated the mayor, and declared “the gravy train is finished”. Meanwhile the mayor of Riace, Domenico Mimmo Lucano, who helped rejuvenate the town’s economy by welcoming thousands of refugees, has been put under house arrest for allegedly “aiding and abetting illegal immigration.” Salvini, who once referred to the mayor as a “nobody” in a video, celebrated his arrest and wondered on Twitter, what would his opponents “who want to fill Italy with immigrants” say now about Riace.

The celebration and legitimisation of anti-immigrant policies, as well as the condemnation and even criminalisation of any pro-immigrant behaviour, is likely to continue in Salvini’s Italy in the coming years. It will be this fundamental change in the Italians’ attitude towards immigrants, and far-right ideas, that marks the legacy of Italy’s populist government. 

Under the new coalition government, far-right ideas and policies are gradually becoming accepted in the media circles and public opinion. Italian moderates are offering a platform to these ideas in a misguided attempt to appease and control them, in almost the same way that they offered a platform to Benito Mussolini and his fascist ideas in the interwar period (and we all know how that ended).

The euro-sceptic wave in Italy is rightfully a cause for concern for Europe’s progressive elites. However, they should actually focus their attention on Salvini’s successful efforts to create a closed, xenophobic community, as his anti-immigrant rhetoric is likely to have more lasting and dangerous consequences for Italy. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.