Salvini ascendant


Kiss for Peace: Two Kissing Girls Photobomb Italy’s Salvini Amid LGBT Row PHOTO/Sputnik International

Italy has a new strongman—for many, a new saviour. The effective head of the government in Rome is not the titular Premier, Giuseppe Conte, nor the winner of the last election, Five Stars leader Luigi Di Maio. It is the Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini. As if overnight, a hitherto obscure municipal councillor from Milan, long-time militant in the separatist Northern League, has become the most powerful figure in the country. In just five years, a party that was a dilapidated political relic, with 3–4 per cent support in the polls, has become, in his hands, the pivot of Italian—and perhaps European—politics. There is a sense, however, in which the story of this astonishing transformation begins a long way off, not in time but space—in the wars and vast economic disparities that have driven millions of Africans and Asians across the Mediterranean in search of work, freedom and a little well-being, towards an affluent Europe that is ever more ageing, unequal and rancorous.

An otherwise normal February day in 2016 in a holding camp on the Greek-Macedonian border, in the middle of that year’s migrant emergency, offers a sense of this landscape. The hamlet of Idomeni lies among low hills, the jagged Balkans in the distance. Here, the double barbed wire of the government in Skopje attracts less attention than Orbán’s rolls of the same in Hungary, though—matter for guilt for some, merit for others—landing a single country with the consequences of a modern exodus. It is nearly supper-time, and seen from a distance the Greek camp, which holds about ten thousand refugees, is quiet, as if swallowed up in the darkness. But as you get closer, there is a souk and some children dancing to Syrian music. A precinct of despair has become a small village, with vans selling sandwiches outside and taxis hoping to pick up anyone wanting to turn back. In the gathering shadows of the evening, the refugees light fires against the cold, and smoke from the burning wood and plastic thickens the air. The chemical toilets are overflowing; there are queues for showers, clothes hung out on the fencing to dry. A few days ago these families were facing the high seas; their red lifejackets are still in use, as little mattresses for sleeping on. Idomeni is a depository of the rejected: Pakistanis, Iraqis, Ghanaians, Afghanis with no chance of continuing their journey to the countries of their dreams—Austria, Germany, Switzerland. They are not video emblems or avatars in a social network: they have eyes, arms, legs, mouths for eating, teeth for smiling. They are peaceable, curious—if at times a little uncomfortable with reporters: no-one wants to be pitied.

How can anyone not feel shame at the inequalities on display here? Capital moves unimpeded; walls go up against human beings. Life depends on a document and a stamp, fate on a miserable piece of paper; hours are spent queuing for a sandwich, waiting fruitlessly for decisions taken by who knows whom, or why. You have to remind yourself of the obvious to prevent your heart from hardening: there are no deserts in our origins, none of us chooses where we are born, or to whom. The Balkan countries on the route north have already decided to limit the numbers crossing their frontiers. Europe prefers to look the other way—or to exploit the political imaginary that can come from the desperation of others: not to help, but to identify an enemy, to stage a competition in humiliation. Who qualifies as the most disadvantaged in the world? The last of the earth and the next-to-last are pitted against each other, while the most favoured are left secure. Yachts pass half-empty while others squabble over a place on the raft.

In Italy, Salvini has led a revolt on the rafts by the next-to-last. Scarcely aware any longer of who might be above them, they see those below them clutching at the shores of Europe as a threat, for they fear sliding further down themselves. The only social mobility possible in a weary, ageing continent seems to be reversal: children of workers no longer becoming doctors, but simply jobless. With great artistry, the leader of the next-to-last has learnt how to talk to their stomachs—their hearts, too.


The Northern League was founded in 1991, on the eve of the implosion of the three mass parties—the Christian Democrats, Communists and Socialists—that had dominated Italy since the Second World War. It was a merger of Umberto Bossi’s Lombard League, which dated back to the mid-eighties, with other regionalist forces in the affluent north, casting itself as neither right nor left.

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