‘Italians first’: Italy’s far-right leader echoes Trump in election campaign

The leader of Italy's far-right party, Matteo Salvini, repeated the slogan 'Italians first' in a TV interview in which he laid out plans to expel hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants.

'Italians first': Italy's far-right leader echoes Trump in election campaign
Matteo Salvini pictured in Milan this week. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

“In Italy there are too many illegal immigrants who go around making trouble. I can't take it anymore,” said Salvini on political talk show Dimartedì.

Salvini's Northern League party is part of a centre-right alliance led by Silvio Berlusconi and currently leading opinion polls.

Salvini said that if he became prime minister, he would ensure that within a year 100,000 “illegal migrants” would be sent back to their countries of origin, saying: “In this moment of crisis and unemployment, the more migrants that come in, the more confusion.”

However, it is not clear how he plans to overcome the bureaucratic obstacles that have slowed down deportations, including the difficulty of tracking down those who live without documents and work in the black economy, or dealing with countries of origin that refuse to accept deported migrants.

The Northern League leader tweeted along with the show, using the hashtag #Primagliitaliani (“Italians first”), one of the party's slogans in the 2018 election campaign and a sentiment echoed in several of his statements.

He accused former PM Matteo Renzi of “betraying the Italians” and said the Northern League would put forward as a candidate “anyone who recognizes themselves in the League's slogan 'Italians first'”.

The day before he had said on Twitter that this slogan was the party's “only objective”.

The 'Italians First' slogan, with its clear parallel to Donald Trump's catchphrase 'America First', is one of several recent shifts in Salvini's rhetoric which give insight into how the party hopes to gain votes in the 2018 election scheduled for March 4th.

It doesn't come as a surprise to see Salvini emulating Trump; he has regularly shared messages in support of the US president, even before his election victory, describing him as a “heroic and colourful person” who shared many of Salvini's own views.

When the pair met, Salvini tweeted a photo of him and Trump smiling and doing thumbs-up signs, though Trump denied claims he had told the Northern League leader “I hope you become prime minister soon”, and said he didn't even know who Salvini was. But that didn't deter Salvini, who was the first Italian politician to congratulate Trump on his election, tweeting “Go, Donald, GO” and the hashtag #oratoccaanoi (“now it's our turn”).

By repeating 'Italians first', Salvini also demonstrated the shift in tactics from the party, which was originally founded as a secessionist movement in the northern area it calls Padania.

In 2014, the Northern League launched a sister movement aimed at Italy's south and titled Noi con Salvini (“Us with Salvini”). This angered party founder Umberto Bossi, but Salvini said of the party's previous criticism of mafia activity, low employment figures and crime in the southern regions: “We have never attacked citizens of the south, only those who manage it”.

Under Salvini's leadership, the Northern League has changed its focus from campaigning for autonomy for the northern regions to a heightened emphasis on its anti-immigration and anti-EU stance.

In his Tuesday interview, he said: “My League is a league which has chosen to speak to all of Italy” as well as saying he was “less and less interested” in differences between the political right and left.

The Northern League also dropped the word ‘north’ from their official logo in late December, approving a simple logo with the word ‘League’ above the party’s image of 12th-century Lombard warrior Alberto da Giussano.

On the new logo, the heading 'Lega' is now accompanied by the new slogan ‘Salvini premier’, yet another sign that the party is increasingly focussed on its figurehead. 

If the centre-right bloc gains a majority, either Forza Italia or the Northern League will choose the country's next prime minister, depending which of the two parties gets more votes. Currently, Forza Italia is just ahead with opinion polls showing it with 16 percent of the vote compared to the League's 14 percent; however, Forza Italia's leader Berlusconi is ineligible to run for office due to a tax fraud conviction.

Salvini also defended the party against accusations of racism in the Tuesday interview, after a Northern League politician said that migration threatened to “wipe out our white race” in what he later claimed was a slip of the tongue

Speaking on Tuesday, the party leader said that “the only antidote to racism is controlled immigration”.



EU ministers hold crisis talks after migrant ship row between Italy and France

European interior ministers met in Brussels on Friday to discuss the latest migrant crisis – a move that was precipitated by Italy's controversial clash with France over the handling of refugees.

EU ministers hold crisis talks after migrant ship row between Italy and France

European interior ministers gathered for crisis talks on Friday as an ugly row between Paris and Rome over how to handle would-be refugees forced a EU migration reform back onto their agenda.

New arrival numbers haven’t yet hit the levels of 2015 and 2016, but European capitals are concerned about new pressure on sea routes from North Africa and overland through the western Balkans.

And now, with winter temperatures descending in eastern Europe and Ukrainian cities facing power cuts under Russian bombardment, the European Union is braced for many more war refugees.

The bloc has been struggling for years to agree and implement a new policy for sharing responsibility for migrants and asylum seekers, but a new dispute has brought the issue to the fore.

READ ALSO: Why are France and Italy rowing over migrants and what are the consequences?

Earlier this month, Italy’s new government under far-right leader Georgia Meloni refused to allow a Norwegian-flagged NGO ship to dock with 234 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean.

The Ocean Viking eventually continued on to France, where authorities reacted with fury to Rome’s stance, suspending an earlier deal to take in 3,500 asylum seekers stranded in Italy.

The row undermined the EU’s stop-gap interim solution to the problem, and Paris called Friday’s extraordinary meeting of interior ministers from the 27 member states.

Migrants in Lampedusa, Italy

Earlier this month, France suspended a deal by which it would take as many as 3,500 refugees stranded in Italy. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

Complaints from Mediterranean countries closer to North African shores like Italy and Greece that they were shouldering too much responsibility for migrants led to the previous plan.

A dozen EU members agreed to take on 8,000 asylum seekers – with France and Germany taking 3,500 each – but so far just 117 relocations have taken place.

‘Nothing new’

After Italy refused responsibility for the Ocean Viking, France has declared that it no longer wants to not only allow ships to arrive from Italian waters but also take in thousands of other migrants.

On Monday, in a bid to revive the mechanism, the European Commission unveiled another action plan to better regulate arrivals on the central Mediterranean route.

“Obviously the meeting was set up following the spat between Italy and France over the migrants aboard the Ocean Viking,” a European diplomat said.

“The action plan that was shared with member states is perfectly fine, but contains nothing new, so it isn’t going to solve the migration issue.”

Stephanie Pope, an expert on migration for the aid agency Oxfam, dubbed Brussels’ plan “just another reshuffle of old ideas that do not work”. 

“It is a waste of time,” she said.

The plan would see a closer coordination between EU national authorities and humanitarian NGOs on rescues of migrants whose make-shift, overcrowded boats are in difficulty.

And it would see Brussels work more closely with Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to try to stop undocumented migrants boarding smuggler vessels in the first place.

READ ALSO: Italy arrests suspected trafficker over deaths of seven migrants

France would like a new framework within which NGO boats could operate – neither a total ban nor a carte blanche to import would-be refugees.

Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus often accuse the humanitarian charities of operating without respect to national authorities and of effectively encouraging immigration.

Migrants on a boat arriving in Italy

Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus often accuse NGOs of operating with disregard to national authorities. Photo by Gianluca CHININEA / AFP

Other member states, including Germany, argue that there can be no limits on humanitarian operations – all seafarers are obliged by the law of the sea to save travellers in danger. 

Ahead of the talks, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, warned: “With almost 2,000 people having already died or gone missing so far this year alone, urgent action is needed.”

Grandi welcomed the European Commission’s draft plan for state-led rescues and predictable ports of disembarkation, adding: “While states point fingers and trade blame, lives are lost.”

Border force

While France and Italy argue about high-profile cases of dramatic rescues in the central Mediterranean, other EU capitals are more concerned about land routes through the Balkans.

Almost 130,000 undocumented migrants are estimated to have come to the bloc since the start of the year, an increase of 160 percent, according to the EU border force Frontex.

On Thursday, the Czech, Austrian, Slovak and Hungarian ministers met in Prague ahead of the trip to Brussels to stress that this route accounts for more than half of “illegal arrivals” in the bloc.

Austrian interior minister Gerhard Karner said the EU should finance border protection and give members “a legal tool to return people who come for economic reasons”.

Diplomats said France and Italy would try to dominate the talks with complaints about sea arrivals, while Greece and Cyprus would point fingers at Turkey for allegedly facilitating illegal entries.

Central and eastern countries would focus on the Balkans route and, as one diplomat said, “Hungary and Poland don’t want anything to do with anything in the field of migration.”