On Sunday evening, shortly after the polls for the European Parliament elections closed, a triumphant Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister, entered the press room of his far-right Lega party’s headquarters in Milan. His party had won big at the elections – receiving 34.33% of the votes cast and sending 28 MEPs to Brussels.
Salvini held a rosary and kissed a small crucifix, thanking the “Immaculate Heart of Mary” (as he did during campaign rallies). Announcing it is time to “save Europe” and “its Judeo-Christian roots”, he pointed to the victories of Marine Le Pen in France and Nigel Farage in the UK, saying: “It is a sign of a Europe that has changed”.
Across the European Union, 50.5% of registered voters participated in the 26 May elections – the highest rate in 20 years, and the first significant increase since 1979. Many commentators responded to the results with a measure of optimism: the populist far-right did not conquer the European Parliament, as they had campaigned to.
Some pundits noted that their position is not much stronger than it was after the last vote, in 2014; others suggested that these far-right populists could struggle to capitalise on their successes inside a fractured European Parliament. Looking at seats, groups, majorities and numbers, this will probably be true. But it may also be missing the point.
“Rather than a victory for democracy”, argued Dutch scholar Cas Mudde, the elections and the reactions to the results show how populism, and particularly “the populist radical right… has become mainstreamed and normalised”. He notes that “we find it normal” now that “the populist radical right is the biggest party in several EU member states”.
“We find it normal” now that “the populist radical right is the biggest party in several EU member states”
Mudde is right – and there is ample evidence to support his argument in Italy. During these European elections, Salvini’s Lega party doubled its share of the vote compared to last year’s national election (when it won just under 18%) and increased it by more than five times since the last European contest (when it won only 6% of votes).
Meanwhile, the Five Star Movement (M5S) – Lega’s partner in the current coalition government – took only 17% of votes (a dramatic drop from last year’s national election). With Lega’s populism increasingly mainstreamed and normalised, Salvini can now readjust the ruling balance of power in his favour – and shift all of Italian politics further to the right.
Take the issue of immigration, Salvini’s favourite: after almost one year of his so-called “closed ports” policy, and a decree on asylum and humanitarian protection rules that left thousands of people in precarious status, there is now a draft of a new harsh security decree against migrants and solidarity, ready to be discussed by the government.
A far-right ‘family portrait’
Salvini posted a picture of himself on social media, right after the first results from the polls emerged. Standing in his office he held a handmade sign thanking Italians for the votes Lega received. On the shelves behind him were pictures of Jesus Christ and the Russian president Vladimir Putin, as well as a “Make America Great Again” hat.
This populist ‘family portrait’ reminded me of what happened this March in Verona, in northeastern Italy. For three days, the city became the headquarters of the World Congress of Families (WCF), an elite network of US, Russian and other ultra-conservative, anti-abortion and anti-LGBTIQ activists, and their growing list of political allies.
There, Salvini and other Lega members took the stage as speakers, as did Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia (‘Brothers of Italy’) party that entered the European Parliament for the first time this week after winning 6.5% of Italian votes.
After the WCF, and before the elections, one of the local organising groups published a “Manifesto for life and family” – against surrogacy, “gender ideology”, and “hyper-sexualiszation of children” – which many of these far-right candidates signed.
Then, WCF partners celebrated Lega’s victory – and the Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) result. The president of one of these partner organisations said that new MEPs had been elected to bring ‘pro-life’ issues into European institutions. Another partner said it looked forward to a new “great European inter-group for Life and the Family” with its own office in Brussels.
While Salvini has said that the 1978 law that legalised abortion in Italy isn’t up for discussion, his positions against sexual and reproductive rights are quite clear. On Mother’s Day, he sent wishes “to all mothers, but not to parent 1 or 2” (a jab at same-sex parents). He’s also issued a decree replacing the gender-neutral term “parents” with “father” and “mother” on the forms required to fill out for minors’ ID cards.
The ‘war on gender’ is being fought in schools too. A November 2018 directive from the education ministry – whose head also spoke at the WCF in Verona – requires an “informed consensus” among parents for students to participate in any extra-curricular activity. Ultra-Catholic groups celebrated the measure as a way to avoid “gender indoctrination” in schools – a bugbear used to stop gender equality education projects.
Lega’s family minister Lorenzo Fontana, another WCF speaker, also has close ties to Italian and international anti-abortion groups. When asked about this weekend’s electoral failure of the Five Star Movement, he said: “Don't forget that Italy and Europe have well-established [religious] identities and origins... It is a mistake also made by the EU”.
Like Salvini, Fontana held up a rosary in front of journalists following the election results and said the government would further strengthen their defence of Christian roots, family values and a higher birth rate. He then endorsed a religious procession by Catholic conservative groups against an LGBTIQ Pride parade in Modena on 1 June.
Cracking down on dissent
Migrants, women and LGBTIQ people have not been the sole targets of Italy’s far-right. Salvini, it seems, will crack down on any dissent. A few weeks ago, a teacher from Palermo, Sicily, was suspended for allowing her students to compare Salvini’s security and migration decree to Mussolini’s racist laws in a video they made for class.
This month, a banner telling Salvini “You are not welcome”, hanging on a balcony in a small northern town where he was set to speak, was removed by firefighters. This sparked further protests across Italy as hundreds of other people hung similar banners.
Young people have started another form of protest, taking advantage of Salvini’s passion for selfies. Two Sicilian women, for example, approached him for a selfie and kissed in front of the camera instead, while a boy from Sardinia used the opportunity to record a video asking Salvini about the allegation that Lega stole €49 million of public money.
When a woman from the southern Campania region tried the same tactic, and asked Salvini if he still thought people from the south were terroni (a derogatory term) – as his Lega party had previously campaigned for independence for the north of the country – he ordered her to delete the video, and asked the police to seize her phone.
Some Italian commentators have pointed out that neo-fascist movements like Casapound or Forza Nuova failed to make big wins at the elections this week. But the truth is that far-right voters have converged on Salvini, as he speaks their language on several themes: immigration, women’s and LGBTIQ rights, security, and ‘gender ideology’.
It is unclear what the future holds for Europe, and Italy. But what I know for sure is that on Monday I woke up in a country where it feels as if the war on women, LGBTIQ people and migrants has only just begun – and will likely get worse.