Age of Aquarius

The Lega has celebrated its gains in local elections by stepping up its attacks on migrants and Roma, with the complicity of M5S, writes Toby Abse

Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right Lega and the interior minister, has emerged as the dominant figure in the new Italian government. Salvini wields far more influence than either the nominal prime minister, Giuseppe Conte of the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S), or M5S leader Luigi Di Maio, who shares the position of deputy prime minister with Salvini, as well as holding two ministries.

The relative strengths of the Lega and M5S have also shifted in electoral terms. Regardless of the accuracy of the SWG poll reported in Corriere della Sera (June 19), which placed the Leganarrowly ahead of the declining M5S by 29.2% to 29%, local elections have already dealt a real shock to M5S. It did very badly indeed in its first electoral test since the formation of the new government - the first round of this year’s municipal elections on June 10. In the 20 provincial capitals affected by the vote, the average M5S score was 12%, only 0.6% higher than its percentage in the same cities five years earlier, and far below its general election return (32.7%). Moreover, M5S only qualified for the second-round run-off ballots (June 24) in three cities.1

M5S is undoubtedly worried by the situation in Rome, where, despite - or more probably because of - its two years in charge of the capital city’s administration under mayor Virginia Raggi, it lost two municipalities (roughly equivalent to London borough councils). In Garbatella a leftwing list won in the first round, with M5S on a paltry 13%. Whilst Montesacro will see a second round run-off , M5S - in third place on 19% - will not be a contender.

Conversely, the Lega did very well, marking further inroads into cities in what used to be ‘red regions’. For example, in the Tuscan city of Pisa, it gained a vote-share of 25%, compared with an insignificant 0.35% five years earlier, and a Lega mayoral candidate was victorious in the run-off on June 24. In the Umbrian city of Terni it reached 30% as part of a ‘centre-right’ coalition, which nearly won in the first round, on 49.2%. In Siena, the victor in the second round was the centre-right Luigi De Mossi, and unfortunately the centre-right candidate in Massa, Francesco Persiani, was also successful. Therefore, Florence is now the only major town or city in the former ‘red region’ of Tuscany to remain in the hands of the centre-left, and the prospect for next year’s local election seems bleak.


In view of these M5S weaknesses, therefore, it is not surprising that Salvini’s favourite policy - a block on migration - has become the distinguishing feature of the new government. Salvini’s total obsession with stopping migration by Trump-like methods means that he has undermined any attempt by Conte or foreign minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi to negotiate a pan-European approach to the question - one that might shift the logistical and economic burden of mass migration away from the so-called front-line states (Italy, Greece, Spain and Malta) to other members of the EU.2

As matters stand, the Dublin treaty means that migrants have to claim asylum in the first ‘safe country’ they arrive in, which after the effective closure of the Balkan route, as a result of the EU’s rotten deal with Turkey, generally means Italy. Most recent migrants would actually prefer to settle in France, Germany or the UK, and therefore it would be in Italy’s ‘national interest’, as it would be conceived by a ‘normal’ bourgeois-liberal government, to negotiate a modification of the Dublin treaty that led to a ‘fairer’ distribution of migrants amongst EU member-countries.

However, Salvini started off his period in office by aligning himself with the four Visegrad countries (Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic), which have either refused to accept any migrants at all or else taken in minuscule numbers, and have done their utmost to sabotage any pan-European quota-based scheme proposed by the European Commission or other EU institutions.3 Clearly, an alignment with the Visegrad Four is not the best way to get the support of Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron in altering the Dublin rules in the way the preceding Italian governments of Matteo Renzi or Umberto Gentiloni would have sought.

In short, Salvini is not interested in a pragmatic solution to the alleged ‘problem’ of mass migration4, which inspires such fear in his electorate - a fear that he has done a great deal to stoke. All the evidence suggests that Salvini is an ideological racist, rather than just an opportunist politician playing the ‘race card’ for demagogic reasons, as David Cameron did with his notorious remark about “swarms of refugees” at Calais. Salvini now seems intent on pursuing a diplomatic line that would be even more effective in destroying any genuinely pan-European approach than his initial lash-up with the Visegrad Four - namely what Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz has described as an ‘axis’ between Italy, Germany and Austria. This is dependent on the hard-right German interior minister, Horst Seehofer of the Bavarian Christian Social Union, undermining the relatively liberal policies of Angela Merkel in relation to immigration.

Whilst Salvini’s remarks on June 3 in relation to Tunisia - “It often and deliberately exports criminals [galleotti - literally ‘galley slaves’]” - led to a diplomatic incident which could easily have had counterproductive consequences from an Italian government point of view, since Tunisia currently accepts 80 forcible repatriations every week, it was the implementation of Salvini’s long-standing anti-NGO rhetoric against a French ship, the Aquarius, that brought his hard-line policy of closing Italian ports to NGOs to international attention.5

The refusal to allow the Aquarius to land in Sicily, despite the presence on board of seven pregnant women and 104 children, as well as dozens of others with serious injuries of one sort or another, showed Salvini to be totally devoid of any scrap of humanity. Whilst after eight days - first of enforced stasis and then of a prolonged voyage through stormy seas - the desperate and often bewildered 630 refugees finally landed in the Spanish port of Valencia with no further loss of life, there was no way the Italian government could ever have guessed in advance that Joan Ribó, the mayor of Valencia, backed by the new Spanish Socialist (PSOE) government of Pedro Sánchez, would give permission for such a landing.

Whilst the Maltese government does not emerge from this episode with much credit, the claim of the Italian government that these refugees were the responsibility of Malta was absurd. The boat was nearer Sicily and in the light of precedent its crew had established communications with the Italian coastguard and navy before the Maltese became aware of it.6 Moreover, in practical terms the Sicilians were far more used to these situations and Sicily is a much bigger and more populous island than Malta.

Although the voters of the Sicilian port of Lampedusa - the principal landing spot for refugees in the years since 2011 - had toppled Leoluca Orlando, their pro-refugee mayor, in 2017, the veteran left-leaning, anti-Mafia mayor of Palermo had expressed a willingness to welcome the refugees. And so had the leftwing mayors of the two biggest port cities on the southern Italian mainland - Naples and Reggio Calabria. Filippo Nogarin, the M5S mayor of the Tuscan port of Livorno, posted a statement on Facebook offering to host the refugees in accordance with Livorno’s tradition as an open city. But 20 minutes later he cancelled the post, clearly on instructions from the higher ranks of M5S.

Oscar Camps, the founder of the Spanish charity Proactiva Open Arms, whose ship was impounded by Italian authorities in March, has said that the number of people drowning in the Mediterranean has risen by 20% since Salvini’s decision to turn away the Aquarius. A spokesman for the German NGO, Seawatch, commented: “The UN Refugee Agency has put out numbers, with more than 200 people drowned in the last five days. That’s a direct effect of the policy of crackdown on sea rescue.”

Meanwhile, Conte’s contribution to the EU emergency summit on migration, held on June 24, was not particularly helpful - as can be deduced from Pedro Sánchez’s comment that the talks had been “frank and open”, but had not resulted in “any concrete consequences or conclusions”. It is unlikely that the official EU summit on June 28 will come to any resolution.

However, two ships - the German NGO boat Mission Lifeline carrying 235 people, and the Danish container ship Alexander Maersk, which rescued more than 100 off southern Italy - were finally given permission to dock by Conte on June 26.


On June 18, Salvini intensified his offensive against Italy’s gypsies, whose camps he has long threatened to raze to the ground. This time he actually called for an ethnic census of the gypsies themselves, rather than a mere survey of the authorised and unauthorised camps. He announced:

I am preparing a dossier at the Viminale [ministry of the interior] on the Roma question. Those that we can expel, using our agreements with other states, we will expel. Unfortunately, we will have to keep the Italians (emphasis added)7.

The Union of Italian Jewish Communities rapidly declared:

The announcement by the interior minister, Salvini, about a possible census of the Roma population in Italy worries us and reawakens memories of racist laws and measures 80 years ago, which are sadly ever more forgotten. There is no search for consensus, no anxiety about public order that justifies the worrying proposal to single out specific categories of citizens, to list them and subject them to special security policies reserved for them alone.8

Needless to say, however, the leader of the neo-fascist Fratelli d’Italia, Giorgia Meloni, was enthusiastically in favour of Salvini’s proposal, and wanted to go even further: “The census of the Roma is the first step. The problem is much wider and needs decisive solutions. If you are a nomad, you can’t settle down.”9

Although Luigi Di Maio pointed out that Salvini’s proposed gypsy census was unconstitutional, leading to a very half-hearted retraction by Salvini later in the day, there is no reason whatever to suppose that the M5S leadership has any serious concerns about Salvini’s ever more viciously racist proposals. As M5S justice minister Alfonso Bonafede emphasised,

What interests me are the actions of the government. Minister Salvini is the most exposed, because in this moment there is the immigration problem. The Italians want to know if the minister is doing good work. From my point of view, yes!!!

To conclude, it must be stressed that the lives lost at sea and the climate of terror amongst migrants and other minorities in Italy are just as much the responsibility of M5S as of the Lega itself.


1. In the Sicilian city of Ragusa, which M5S has administered since 2013, its mayoral candidate only scored 22% in the first round - hardly a strong position from which to contest the run-off.

2. It is not my intention here to idealise the existing pan-European approach, which is based on a Fortress Europe conception, in which Libya and other African states - possibly Egypt, Tunisia or Niger - would be paid like Erdoğan’s Turkey to keep refugees away from European shores. I am merely contrasting it with the more blatantly racist ‘let them drown’ approach of Salvini and his allies, like Viktor Orbán.

3. The Visegrad Four, and in particular Hungary, portray such sabotage as a defence of ‘Christian Europe’ against the ‘Muslim hordes’ being sent their way by Jewish billionaire George Soros.

4. Given Italy’s low birth rate and ageing population, it would be advantageous to Italian capital to have more migrants. As things stand, a large number of undocumented black immigrants are illegally employed in southern agriculture at very low wages for long hours in appalling conditions. Needless to say, this labour market is frequently controlled by organised crime, especially in Sicily and Calabria.

5. The ship is operated by the French charity, SOS Mediteranée, in conjunction with Médecins Sans Frontières.

6. The coastguard and navy helped to reprovision it with food, water and medical supplies - as did the Maltese navy. When it became apparent that the Aquarius could not undertake the long voyage to Spain in stormy weather with 630 on board, the bulk of the passengers were transferred to Italian vessels, which sailed to Valencia in a convoy of three with the Aquarius in the middle.

7. An estimate cited in Corriere della Sera (June 19) claimed 43% of Roma and Sinti had Italian citizenship. Some of the others are citizens of other EU states, and expelling them would be a breach of EU law. The legal situation of those who came from the former Yugoslavia is more debatable.

8. Whilst the analogy with Mussolini’s anti-Jewish racial laws of 1938 should be obvious, it ought to be mentioned, as Jewish Partito Democratico politician Emanuele Fiano pointed out, that lists of Roma were drawn up by the fascist bureaucracy in the late 1920s, and even today the older generation of gypsies recall the four specialised internment camps.

9. Corriere della Sera June 19.