Matteo Salvini provokes controversy with comments equating Europe to ISIS

Far-right leader dismisses accusations he seeks to resurrect fascism in Italy

Italian Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini speaks during a rally of his far-right League party in Turin. EPA
Italian Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini speaks during a rally of his far-right League party in Turin. EPA

Europe is at risk of becoming an “Islamic caliphate”, Italy’s populist Interior Minister Matteo Salvini told a rally as he campaigned in the country’s regional elections.

The Italian firebrand has launched an aggressive electoral campaign centred on the preservation of national identity and putting an end to illegal immigration with an eye to emerging as the largest party in the coming elections and a second vote for the European Parliament in May.

“Either Europe saves itself now, or it never will,” Mr Salvini said on Sunday. “Either we take it back, as we are doing with Italy, or it will become an Islamic caliphate with no hope or future.”

The comments were met with scorn by a woman in the crowd, who shouted “fascist” at the leader of the anti-immigrant League party.

Mr Salvini replied sending a kiss to the lady – as he often mockingly does to his opponents – and rejected the accusation. “We live in a democracy and we will not go back to fascism, Nazism or communism. What I’d like to see is more respect,” he said.

Increasingly hardline rhetoric has emanated from the campaign waged by the Italian official. On April 25 – which coincides with Italy’s national holiday in remembrance of the fall of fascism – Mr Salvini told a crowd of supporters in Sicily: “Our grandparents sacrificed themselves to stop foreigners from coming in. I am doing and will do exactly the same, because this is our home and Italians come first.”

A post on the minister’s Facebook’s page quoting his words was met by a flurry of comments. “Our grandparents and ancestors sacrificed themselves for democracy and everyone’s freedom (see 25 April), not for hating foreigners,” one user said.

Another one used Nelson Mandela’s words to condemn racism.

The minister, who also serves as deputy prime minister, has been the object of an array of lawsuits following his decision to close all Italian ports to rescue boats operated by humanitarian organisation to assist migrants at sea.

Last August, Mr Salvini was investigated for alleged abuse of power and holding people against their will after the Italian coastguard ship, the Diciotti, was denied permission to disembark its passengers.

In February, a key committee voted not to lift his immunity to face a possible trial.

His League party also come under fire last week as one of its members, Armando Siri, was accused of accepting a €30,000 (Dh122,820) bribe from a businessman in return for pushing specific renewable energy policies.

Mr Siri is set to offer Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte his resignation within the next two days to prevent a government crisis.

The case escalated tensions between the League and its coalition partner, the Five Star Movement, whose members have repeatedly called for Mr Siri’s resignation.

The party’s leader, Luigi Di Maio, said on Thursday: “When there’s the mafia involved, we can’t wait for the trial before deciding. [Mr Siri] must go.”

Mr Salvini and other League officials argued that evidence is not sufficient to convict Mr Siri, therefore he should not step down. League officials also say the allegations do not in any way link their minister to the mafia and have threatened to withdraw support for the prime minister should Mr Conte step in to oust him.

The governing coalition has experienced several rifts in recent months. Critics have accused both parties of using internal disputes to radicalise their position and win votes ahead of the European elections.

The League, which was the Five Star Movement’s junior partner when it formed a government in March 2018, is now projected to win the largest share in the next elections.

Latest European elections polls show the League ahead in Italy, with a share of votes oscillating between 31 and 37 per cent. The Five Star Movement is projected to come second, bagging between 20 and 23.5 per cent of preferences.

In the European parliament, votes for Mr Salvini will result in the Europe of Nations and Freedom party – which comprises right-wing and far-right groups across Europe – taking 27 of the 73 total seats allocated to Italy.

Under its former leader Umberto Bossi, the League – formerly called the Northern League – has been in the eye of a political and judicial storm after claims by prosecutors that taxpayers' money was used to pay for improvements to Mr Bossi’s house, as well as for travel, dinners and hotel accommodation for his children.

Mr Bossi, his son Renzo and ex-treasurer Francesco Belsito were convicted in July 2017 for embezzling €49m of public money between 2008 and 2010.

Since then, €1.5m of the League's assets have been frozen, but the party succeeded in blocking an order by a lower court to confiscate the rest of the sum.

Updated: July 31, 2019 03:21 PM


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