“I Love the EU!”

“I Love the EU!”

How to Better Understand Matteo Salvini’s Pro-European Conversion?

03/2021  | Reading time: 12 minutes

Even before his government took office, the new Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi, had achieved a success at least as extraordinary as unexpected. He could win the support of a very large majority from across the whole political spectrum, including Matteo Salvini’s League. For the occasion, the largest Eurosceptic party in Italy and in the European Parliament underwent an incredible conversion and decided to become a member of the most pro-European Italian government of the last decades. However, to better understand Salvini’s sharp turn, it is necessary to consider the many changes happening in not only Italy but also the EU, where the resources of the Next Generation EU will soon be distributed, and, particularly, in Germany, where the end of the Merkel era is also expected to have important implications for Rome.

The wave of euphoria and enthusiasm that, following former PM Giuseppe Conte’s resignation in Februaryresulted in Mario Draghi’s appointment to the helm of the Italian government convinced Italians of all political beliefs that the country would enter a new economic “renaissance.” Driven by the strong appeal of the former head of the European Central Bank among people, Italian political parties, experiencing their deepest ideological crisis since the end of the Cold War, jumped on the bandwagon and offered their support to the freshly appointed partly technocratic, partly political team. Eventually, Draghi’s cabinet won the confidence vote by a large margin and votes from the most heterogeneous majority ever. The only forces sitting on the opposition benches are the far-right Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia, FdI) and some “rogue” members of the Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle, M5S) who were expelled from the party because they had voted against the party line.

Draghi performed his first “miracle” even before starting his very promising legislature. Incredibly, the new Italian prime minister—the man who saved the eurozone from collapse and the living example of the much-loathed Eurocrats who, in the populist conception, are working in the big banks’ interests and against the “common people”—hit the Italian sovereignists where it hurt most, and won the heart of the toughest Eurosceptic force in Italy, which is the largest party of its kind in the European Parliament (EP).

As Matteo Salvini converted to pro-Europeanism and his League (Lega) joined the majority supporting the new, partly technocratic, partly political Italian government, Draghi neutralised the sturdiest opponent to his reformist programme. In return, Salvini, without whose support the new government would not even have been formed, obtained three ministries, among them the Ministry of Tourism and the key Ministry of Economic Development, of which the latter is assigned to Giancarlo Giorgetti, the League’s second in command, strategist, and responsible for foreign affairs.

Salvini’s 180-degree turn caught everyone off guard and caused a breach in the Italian moderate world (about these dynamics, see my recent blog post), suggesting interesting trends in view of the next general election to be held in 2023. Surely, the Capitano’s “centrist” conversion was carried out at the cost of creating ideological contradictions and probably making the party’s radical voters move towards FdI.

However, Salvini’s choice to endorse Draghi almost unconditionally after years of anti-EU battles has to be understood as the next step in a political strategy that has, perforce, been evolving since the beginning of the last year. Over the past months, at the apex of its popularity, the League did not manage to win a series of local elections in key regions (like Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, Apulia, and Campania), and, when it could, the chosen candidate was often successful at building support for his person, being in disagreement with the party leadership as it happened to Luca Zaia in Veneto. Understandably, the traditionally moderate Italian electorate grew suspicious of Salvini’s divisive and radical political style and his often contradictory political agenda. This trend was further reinforced by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, which helped shift the focus from issues like immigration to health emergency, depriving this way the League of its most important topic. From that moment, the Italian Eurosceptic party has steadily been losing support—polls show that the League, while remaining Italy’s first party, stands at 24%, down from 37% in August 2019—mostly to the advantage of FdI, its far-right contender.

Salvini’s U-turn has also caused dissatisfaction among the party’s old guard, while the League’s core voters, mostly representing the productive middle class from the northern regions, which has strong ties to the European markets, hardly ever espoused his attitude of antagonising EU institutions. However, disappointing domestic results alone are not enough to account for the League’s recent transformation. For finding a better explanation, it is worthwhile to take into account the important changes happening in the EU and, especially, in Germany.

Since the last European election, when the League became the largest Italian delegation in the EP with twenty-eight MEPs (twenty-nine after Brexit), the Eurosceptic party took part in creating the group of Identity and Democracy (ID) together with the German Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD) and Marine Le Pen’s French National Rally (Rassemblement National, RN). The group has a relatively small size (only seventy-six MEPs), but it also decided to be in opposition to the so-called Ursula coalition. In fact, the main political groups in the EP established an informal “cordon sanitaire” to prevent Eurosceptic and sovereignist parties from accessing important representative duties and, therefore, being an active part of the decision-making process. As a result, the League became even more marginalised not just at home but also in Europe. The Italian party’s self-inflicted marginalisation in all fora obliged the leadership of the Carroccio—this is the nickname of the League—to undertake a very challenging and suffered change of direction and gradually adopt a more moderate, cooperative, and less populist attitude. And the recent Italian political crisis offered the perfect opportunity to speed up this process.

The fall of the second Conte government came at the right moment for the party. On the one hand, Salvini had the opportunity to break his isolation and, driven by an alleged “sense of responsibility,” he could stand behind Draghi’s cabinet as polls showed that support for the party weakened further. On the other hand, the League’s core voters espouse many of the new PM’s ideas for using the Next Generation EU funds (to make more investments in added value sectors, increase productivity, and develop infrastructure and tourism), and, consequently, the party’s leadership decided to grab the chance and become an active actor in the implementation of the reforms the EU is expecting from Italy. This obviously offers twofold advantage to the “Greens” (i.e., the League), who will, thus, be able to deliver some parts of their programme to their electorate, without bearing the political costs.

Surely, it is open to debate now whether Salvini’s decision is the fruit of mere pragmatism or the League is carrying out a real transformation.

However, even this initial change has already had repercussions in Europe. Being part of the most pro-European Italian government of the last decades will help rebrand the League as a more responsible and moderate party in Europe, while it also offers Salvini the impulse to regain the credibility he needs for leading the country in the future. Furthermore, trying to fish in the moderate–conservative pool is surely a more promising task than staying in opposition and struggling with the Fdl for control over the declining sovereignist electorate.

Rather surprisingly, some of the League’s representatives have already started to justify why embracing Italy’s full belonging to the EU fits into the party’s tradition. They also say that the country should anyway be more present in the union, while they remark that the decision to participate in Draghi’s government has been dictated by the fact that the former head of the ECB represents the best way “to defend Italian interests in Brussels head-on.”

However, although Salvini was the face of this rebranding operation, the idea has been for some time in the making and should be ascribed to the party’s strategist, Giancarlo Giorgetti. As the most moderate, Atlanticist, and Europhile person within the League, he has been campaigning intensively to achieve that his party move towards more centrist views and, most importantly, get affiliated to the European People’s Party (EPP). Giorgetti wants to reverse the League’s marginalisation in Europe, which started with the election of Ursula von der Leyen as president of the European Commission (EC) and worsened with the adoption of several important dossiers in the last year that the League opposed (or did not attend the sessions when they were voted) for purely ideological reasons. Giorgetti well understood that the growing isolation of the League was extremely damaging to the party because, if things were not changing, the largest delegation of the Next Generation EU’s biggest recipient might have no voice in decisions about its implementation.

According to some, the League has already taken its first steps out of the ID and might soon decide to leave the group and spend some time among the unaffiliated before requesting to be accepted in the EPP. In the meantime, the party began toning its rhetoric down by putting some distance between itself and its fellows in the Eurosceptic group—which, paradoxically, Salvini helped to create—by shifting away from its most controversial positions: its pro-Putin, anti-EU, -euro, and -migration views, to name but a few. Interestingly, the League has recently joined the EP in condemning Russia after Navalnyj’s arrest, and, later in February, the party voted with the EPP and all the other pro-European forces for implementing the Recovery and Resilience Facility, backing the shared recovery effort for the first time. As expected, the League’s actions baffled the representatives of the AfD, who formally expressed their disappointment at this “anomalous” behaviour and the Italian party’s support for a government led by Draghi. As a reaction to the Germans’ comments, the League’s spokesman in the EP and the president of the ID, Marco Zanni, accused the AfD’s MEPs of interfering in the League’s party matters and claimed that they fully support the new prime minister.

Marco Zanni, president of the ID and the League’s spokesman in the EP
Source: © European Union 2019, European Parliament (via Flickr), licence: CC-BY-4.0

Manfred Weber, the head of the EPP, commented positively on the developments occurring in Italy and Salvini’s party but added that there were no plans for the League’s entering the EPP. However, many within the EPP would be interested in discussing the League’s accession, particularly after Viktor Orbán’s decision to withdraw Fidesz MEPs from the group following a modification to an internal regulation considered hostile towards the Hungarian representatives. The Hungarian delegation’s departure obliges the League to act quickly and strategically if it wishes to enter the EPP. If Salvini wants to avoid spending too much time in the unaffiliated group, he even has the chance to create a single party with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and to be immediately accepted in Weber’s faction. On paper, this is a desirable deal for the EPP, at least numerically, but Weber has to come to terms with the diffidence of the moderates within the group. Among them, MEPs from the German Christian Democratic Union (Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands, CDU), the largest within the EPP, are not very much convinced of the League’s change of direction, and their opposition alone would be enough to resist the Italian party’s efforts.

Being aware of the CDU’s resistance, Salvini—endangering what Giorgetti has so far built up—has recently suggested creating a new Eurosceptic group within the EP that would also include parties currently in the ECR (European Conservatives and Reformists) group. In Salvini’s view, the accession to the EPP is not on the table (certainly, not because he dismisses the idea), and his best chance now to raise the League’s value and to break the isolation is to offer a good alternative to Weber’s party accused of moving too much towards liberal ideals. Salvini’s hope to fight marginalisation by challenging the EPP will anyway collide with the reality of European politics. While the creation of a new Eurosceptic group in the EP could prove to be very hard—because the League’s leader should put together very different parties to do that—and would, most of all, face opposition from Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the Fdi and the ECR, antagonising the EPP might turn out to be an even more self-destructive decision. Once again, a change of attitude, and maybe leadership, might be in the best interests of the League.

At the moment, winning the hearts of Chancellor Merkel’s party should be the priority for the Italian party. From this perspective, the results of the CDU and the Bavarian CSU’s (Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern, Christian Social Union in Bavaria) leadership contest and the German federal elections in September represent crucial turning points for the League’s leadership. Salvini and its party fellows should keep track of the political developments taking place in Germany because, as Giorgetti affirmed, it is in the League’s best interest to engage in a dialogue with the new leader of the post-Merkel CDU/CSU union. According to the party’s second in command, the political direction chosen by the CDU/CSU will automatically be the direction followed by the EPP and, perhaps, by the European institutions, as well. If the party fails to understand this, it will be forced to sit on the sidelines until the end of the European legislature.

In the meantime, the appointment of the moderate and progressive Armin Laschet at the helm of the CDU is a sign of continuity between the policy pursued by Merkel and that of its successors and a good omen for Italy. Laschet is one of the most important representatives of the most centrist wing of the party, which shares pro-European (and, most importantly for Rome, pro–European solidarity) values but also has strong belief in Atlanticism and multilateralism. From an economic point of view, the Laschet-led CDU, a large part of the EPP, and, now, Mario Draghi in Italy, are all advocates of the social market economy (soziale Marktwirtschaft), a concept introduced by Konrad Adenauer in 1949. This doctrine aimed at striking a balance between market capitalism and an inclusive welfare state, aspiring to build a stronger, yet inclusive society. From the Italian perspective, were Laschet to win in September, a more united front of the supporters of this doctrine would be established in the EU, likely to promote more solidarity between member states and reluctant to revive the austerity model which caused too many divisions within the eurozone. Moreover, Merkel’s designated successor is also a staunch supporter of the German–Italian cooperation at both a bilateral and an EU level. If Salvini’s radical rebranding will be the League’s official line for the future, the party could reap immense benefits of positioning itself on the Draghi–EPP–Laschet axis.

Armin Laschet, the new CDU’s leader
Source: KASonline (via Flickr), author: KAS, licence: CC BY 2.0

As a starting point—and as a price for his support—Salvini could ask PM Draghi to use his credibility in Europe to break the cordon sanitaire built around his party and facilitate his approach to the EPP. At the end of this year, when the EP will elect a new president and new political bodies, it would be in the League’s best interest to have a say in the matter. Moreover, the League could also aspire to obtain some influential positions in some parliamentary commissions from within the EPP. However, to reach this goal, the League has a long way to go and still needs to resolve many contradictions, probably also dismissing some unconvinced hardliners from the party. It is yet to be seen if Salvini will have enough political willpower to carry out his plan.

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