In March I was in Verona, Italy’s ‘city of love’. I was queuing for what proved to be a delicious espresso and brioche in a magnificent hall overlooking a Roman amphitheatre. And I was chatting to a leading far-right bureaucrat.
If it were not for the politics of my new fascist friend, it would have been a perfect holidaymaking moment. But I was at work: reporting undercover on a big annual jamboree for far-right politicians, conservative Catholics and evangelical Christians called the World Congress of Families.
This week, the far right hopes to win its biggest victory in Europe since the 1930s. Many of the politicians I met in Verona are seeking to surf a wave of discontent into the European Parliament, where they can work together to roll back hard-won rights for women, LGBTIQ people, migrants and minorities.
For far-right politicians who claim to represent the working class against metropolitan elites, they sure had a taste for the good life. The World Congress of Families didn’t happen for free. It brought ultra-conservatives from across the planet together to plot their assault on rights, and to share their passion for the “Bible, borders and Brexit”, as one speaker put it. They must have all spent a fortune on flights, conference tickets, comfortable city-centre hotels – not to mention delicious Italian food.
So who paid for all this? In part, I already knew: my openDemocracy colleagues and I had shown how American Christian conservatives have flooded Europe with at least $50 million over the past decade. But when we started looking at some of the sponsors, I discovered I was at the most conservative (teetotal) cheese and wine party in the world.
One sponsor, its logo printed on conference materials, was Villa Sandi: one of Italy’s leading prosecco producers. Now why would a business devoted to something as pleasant as inexpensive fizzy white wine want to promote itself to the kind of people I was meeting at the World Congress of Families?
After all, my chatty acquaintance in the coffee queue turned out to be Guillaume Pradoura – an adviser to Nicolas Bay, general secretary of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally and co-president of the nationalist group in the European Parliament.
He wasn’t out of place in Verona. Back at the Congress the next day, I had a chat with a Trump fundraiser about data extraction for European election campaigning, and asked Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, friend of Steve Bannon and pope-emeritus Benedict XVI, about Bannon’s planned training camps for far-right ‘culture warriors’.
On the third day, I squeezed into the back of an excited hall to watch Italy’s far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini charm a crowd which included senior figures from nativist parties in Germany, France, and Hungary. Not to mention Trump fans, alt-right YouTube stars, evangelical Christians and Catholic activists.
Their belief, as keynote speaker ‘Prince’ Louis de Bourbon – great-grandson of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, Queen Victoria’s great-great-great grandson and pretender to the French throne – put it, is: “The strong and the weak should know their place”.
‘A brand that is not just wine’
Key figures in Salvini’s Lega party have praised Villa Sandi. According to Luca Zaia – one of the many Lega speakers at the Congress – Villa Sandi is a “brand [that] is not just wine, but contains the beauty, identity and history of an entire territory".
I asked Villa Sandi why it decided to sponsor this big global gathering of ultra-conservative activists and their authoritarian nationalist friends – and how much it paid to do so. They told me they had sponsored the summit because they were asked to do so by the (Lega controlled) regional government, and that they often sponsor local events. They said that the amount they had given was small and that they had sponsored it “only because the region patronised this event”.
Observer restaurant critic and famous wine buff Jay Rayner slammed the company today, saying: “Some proseccos leave a nastier taste in the mouth than others, but none more so than Villa Sandi. In a complex, dark and often wretched political world consumers need information, and now we have it. If you don't like your prosecco made by a company like Villa Sandi which sponsors coalitions of racists, bigots and ultra nationalists, determined to mount a war on rights for women and the LGBT+ community, do not drink or promote their products. It's as simple as that.”
Gay rights activist Peter Tatchell echoed Rayner’s call for a boycott, saying: “It is outrageous that Villa Sandi is sponsoring this sexist, homophobic congress, which is supported by far right politicians.”
The prosecco titan wasn’t the only producer of an iconic Italian product at the event. Amidst stalls for anti-abortion groups and religious fundamentalists was a cheese firm. Brazzale claims to be the oldest Italian dairy company, operating continuously since 1784. A spokeswoman for the firm confirmed to me that they were also sponsors of the event, but wouldn’t tell me how much they had paid.
Its well-known brand, Gran Moravia, calls itself “the eco-sustainable chain,” and is famous among vegetarians for rennet-free cheese. Cheesemaker-in-chief is Roberto Brazzale, who is publicly anti-euro. He also spoke at the first ‘Festival for Life’ organised by anti-abortion groups in Verona last year, and at the 2017 March For Life in Rome. At the World Congress of Families I went to his workshop, where he spoke about the policies he has adopted to encourage his employees to breed.
Ultraconservatives and the far right like to sneer at ‘champagne socialists’ and present themselves as the voice of the people. But in reality, they rely on the networks of blinged-up bishops, fascist aristocrats and wine and cheese magnates. So next time you pop a bottle, make sure you check the label first. Or it might leave a nasty aftertaste.
* Additional research by Claudia Torrisi and Claire Provost