Salvini, Italy's minister of fear and the new fascism
Italy's oldest party, remains unashamedly xenophobic, racist and sexist, writes Paddy Agnew
Last Thursday night, at the very moment Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte was threatening to scupper the EU summit, you would have found a key to the row in Brussels in the little Lombardy town of Caravaggio.
La Lega - the League - the junior partner in the new Italian coalition government was holding a party rally there. The main speaker of the night was League leader, interior minister and deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini. His analysis of his first three weeks in government office explains just why that 13-hour Brussels summit went on until 4.30am in the morning.
"In our first month in office, we've done something that we haven't seen in Italy for years," he said.
"For the first time, two boats crammed with migrants weren't allowed to land in Italy, rather, they were sent somewhere else.
"They called me to say that there was another NGO boat full of migrants, a foreign boat flying a foreign flag, manned by a foreign crew and financed by foreigners. 'Where will we let them land, minister?' I said 'no'.
"For the first time, no Italian port was opened up for them... because we in Italy are sick and tired of being used as a European dumping ground for migrants."
In the last fortnight, Salvini's aggressive anti-immigrant stance has made him an overnight international celebrity with everyone from CNN to Der Spiegel keen to interview him. The reason is simple. As last week's summit showed, Salvini could yet be the man whose politics contribute to the break-up of the European Union.
Two weeks ago, Salvini refused to allow the NGO ship Aquarius unload its cargo of migrants in Sicily, forcing the boat to sail on to Valencia in Spain. Last week, he repeated the trick, blocking another NGO ship, Lifeline, forcing it to sail on to Malta instead.
Under Salvini, Italy has suddenly said "basta" - enough. The country which, since 2011, has taken in 750,000 boat-people, has dramatically changed tack. Usually, the rest of the EU looks on as another cargo of migrants arrives on Italian shores. Heads shake, there are expressions of solidarity and then Italy, with all its structural inadequacies, is left to get on with it all, more or less on its own. All over the EU, governments secretly think to themselves, "thank God, we don't have a Mediterranean coastline".
This change of policy is due, above all, to one man, Matteo Salvini. The 45-year-old is a lifelong League activist, someone who joined the party at the age of 17 in 1990 and someone who has been a League parliamentarian, either in Strasbourg or in Rome, for almost his entire adult life.
His anti-immigrant views are merely the traditional well-established views of a 30- year-old party which tends to distrust or reject "the other", be that from a different region, a different country or a different sexual orientation.
It is simple, really. The League, now Italy's oldest party, remains unashamedly xenophobic, racist and sexist. What is more, it gets a lot of votes (17pc at the March general election) for being all of those things. Not for nothing did an opinion poll conducted last month find that Salvini was the most popular politician in today's Italy with a 52pc approval rating.
So, where do his politics come from? Essentially, he is a true League exponent, someone who lives up to the best standards of the party's one time motto of 'celodurismo'. Now that means, metaphorically, 'I am a tough guy' and, literally, 'I've got a big hard one' - not exactly parliamentary language.
Back in 1997, I attended a Northern League - as it was then called - party congress in Milan. Up on the main platform stood a 20ft high oil painting depicting a space ship blasting off from a platform constructed in a marshy swamp. The space ship, of course, was called Padania (a mythical League region) and the marshy swamp represented modern Italy.
As I looked at the painting, I asked one of the delegates, lawyer Marco Brigliadori, to explain it to me. "Simple", he said "The rest of Italy doesn't want to listen to us... but there is an avalanche about to roll here.
"We're different people up here, we're hard-working Ambrosian Catholics, almost Protestant, while down south they're practically Islamic. They just want to sit back and wait for hand-outs."
To a large extent, that is still the quintessential League line, even if the target might have changed. In the League mind, it is no longer the Neapolitans who "want to sit back and wait for hand-outs" but rather the migrants, especially the African migrants.
In an Italy bedevilled by 20 years of little or no economic growth, plagued by 33pc youth unemployment (as high as 55pc in a region like Calabria), blighted by poor administration and in a country in which, according to state statistics agency Istat, five million people live in "absolute poverty", Salvini's 'Italians First' message strikes home.
It would be a mistake, however, to in any way dismiss either Salvini or his followers as merely northern Barbarians. Salvini's handling and promotion of his party since he was appointed leader in 2013 has been nothing less than brilliant.
In many ways, he has much in common with another Matteo, namely the former whiz-kid prime minister Matteo Renzi of the Partito Democratico (PD, ex-Communist party).
Both men outflanked an ageing party hierarchy to take control. Both are articulate, comfortable with social media and always ready with the neatly shaped soundbite. Above all, both are driven by burning ambition.
Salvini first hit national headlines back in 1999 when, as a 26-year-old Milan city councillor, he refused to shake hands with then president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi at an official reception. "You do not represent me", said Salvini to the president, in an expression of his party's secessionist aspirations.
Since taking over the party, however, Salvini has worked on the marketing and restyling of the League "brand", moving its horizons well beyond Italy as he attempted to give it both a nationwide appeal and a European/international identity.
In the latter context, he has come across some notorious bedfellows.
Last December, he tweeted, "Full support to President Trump's policies on tax policies, Israel and border control". When he met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Venice in 2014, he made him a present of his then trademark tracksuit top bearing the inscription 'No Sanctions'.
Salvini's calls for law and order and his warnings against a migrant "invasion" that represents the creeping Islamisation of Europe has earned him some notorious contacts. Trump, Putin, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, ex-Trump adviser Steve Bannon and far-right French leader Marine Le Pen all have their spot in the favourites list on his mobile phone.
Salvini has even visited North Korea, pronouncing himself impressed with a country where he witnessed a "splendid sense of community" in a state which supplies everything - "school, house and work".
Clearly Salvini's politics, not to mention his new-found international pals, are a cause for concern, at least to some. His closeness to Italian right-wing movements such as Casa Pound prompts many to accuse him of a more than sneaking attraction to fascism, an accusation which he himself compounded last January when he tweeted: "Fascism did many good things."
Salvini's tweets keep house in some classic, dark areas of fear and worry for the average Italian, namely unemployment, corporate banking greed, terrorism, migration, organised crime and how to deal with Italy's Roma migrant people.
His populist tendencies result in tweets such as this one of February of last year: "What we need in Italy too is a massive clean-out. Street by street, quarter by quarter and using force if necessary".
That prompted the Jewish historian Vittoria Foa, writing in Catholic daily Avvenire in February of last year, to suggest that Europeans had already heard such language - from Nazi death camps through to the Bosnian massacre of Srebrenica in the 1990s, she said, Europe knows all about ethic cleansing, adding: "For many of us, the danger is this. Now he is talking about (cleaning out) migrants but what comes after that? Who is next on his proscribed list?"
Even Pope Francis has fallen foul of Salvini. In September 2016, he posed with a T-shirt which read 'My Pope is Benedict', later criticising Pope Francis's call for western governments to be more willing to take in migrants.
Salvini has also touched base with conservative US cardinal Raymond Burke, a prince of the church who has dared to publicly criticise Francis.
Furthermore, the rise and rise of Salvini last week prompted the acclaimed Italian novelist Elena Ferrante to portray him as a danger, writing in The Guardian: "(He) is in line with the worst of Italian political traditions...he has become increasingly persuasive, giving the appearance of a good-natured common man who thoroughly understands the problems of the common people and at the right moment bangs his xenophobic and racist fists on the table."
In the preface to a recent book on Salvini, called The Minister of Fear, historian Tomaso Montanari put it another way: "Perhaps we should say it. His ideology is one of explicit racism and of a new fascism".