Can Europe Make It?

Populist snapshots: Lega Nord (Italy)

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This excerpt is from a debate in the European Parliament referring to the expiry on 1 January 2014 of temporary labour restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian workers (on 15 January 2014). Commentary follows.

Karin Kadenbach Giulio Carini Mara Bizzotto
18 March 2014

This article looks at the populist rhetoric of Lega Nord in the European Parliament. Lega Nord is an Italian party that in the past has been associated with its demands for the independence of regions in northern Italy, including Lombardy, Piedmont and the Veneto, and its anti-immigration position. Since its former leader Umberto Bossi’s resignation in the wake of a corruption scandal and it’s poor performance in general elections in February 2013, the party has become a relatively minor player on the political scene.

As Lega Nord looks to rebuild its support ahead of the European Parliament elections, its new party secretary, Matteo Salvini, has recently described the European Union as a “monster” that needs to be “slaughtered” and has called the Euro a “crime against humanity”. Salvini has paired up with Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National in France in the European Parliament, in what he calls an “iron pact” for a “different Europe” that is “not based on servitude to euro and banks, ready to let us die from immigration and unemployment”.

The debate

When Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007, nine EU member states including Italy, the UK and Germany imposed temporary labour restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian workers. In January 2012, Italy lifted these restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians. Following the expiry of these restrictions for all European countries in January 2014, and amid statements from European politicians undermining the right to freedom of movement, the European Parliament decided to hold a debate on the issue.

Mara Bizzotto (member state: Italy; party: Lega Nord; European Political Group: Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group):


Mr. President, in Italy there are 3,300,000 unemployed and one third of Italy’s population is at risk of poverty. For those, even here in the Parliament, who repeat over and over that the freedom of movement for workers cannot be questioned, I advise you to go meet citizens who are unemployed and to meet with entrepreneurs who, due to the financial crisis, are forced to close their businesses...

Therefore, the only thing to do is to immediately block admitting non-EU immigrants for at least two years but also, through quotas, citizens who come from Romania and Bulgaria. These guests who are not welcome, once they arrive in Italy, immediately get free health care and welfare benefits – health care and benefits that are not guaranteed even for Italian citizens.

The European Union has to address this problem before already existing social tensions erupt in a very dangerous way.


Karin Kadenbach (member state: Austria; party: Social Democratic Party of Austria; European Political Group: Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats):


Perhaps I misunderstood you, but in a part of your speech you spoke of third country nationals, while mentioning Romanians and Bulgarians. That would be the first question. My second question: Don’t you think it is necessary that precisely those Member States that question the freedom of movement of persons should contribute more to the cohesion policy, so that
in those regions where people are moving out of, we invest more and create more jobs, to help ensure that people can attain the same quality of life in those regions of Europe where they feel most at home?


Mara Bizzotto:

Mr. President, I spoke of Bulgarians and Romanians who are of course European citizens. But Italian citizens don’t care at all: they are looking for work and they can’t find it. And they don’t appreciate that people from far way come to take their jobs.

I’ll say this: there are too many people who are unemployed; there are elderly Italians who don’t even have the money to buy their medicine but people come from other countries and claim they should get them immediately. This is what I’ll say, this is the reality and we have to take note of this right away.



In the above debate, Mara Bizzotto begins by portraying MEPs as elites unwilling to question freedom of movement and ignoring the plight of the “common man” who finds himself unemployed or having to close down his business. Bizzotto then equates Romanians and Bulgarians with non-EU immigrants who come to Italy to take advantage of its social services. She further implies that Romanians and Bulgarians have a greater chance of claiming benefits than Italians. By invoking “existing social tensions”, she describes the EU as out of touch and unable to deal with people’s real concerns, which could manifest themselves through violence. 

Kadenbach reframes the issue as a question of investment by the EU: Romanians and Bulgarians are moving to Italy or other parts of Europe because there is not enough investment in their home countries. As a result, people from these countries move because they can’t find jobs and not because they are looking for social benefits. 

Bizzotto ignores Kadenbach’s discussion of the need for more investment by the EU. By repeatedly discussing the issue solely in terms of how Romanians and Bulgarians steal jobs from Italians, she resorts to the Manichean tendency of populism, dividing the issue between “us” – the “many people who are unemployed” – and “them” – Romanians and Bulgarians “who come from far away to take their jobs”.  And when referencing “elderly Italians who don’t have the money to buy their medicine”, she puts herself on the side of “ordinary people” and against the uncaring elite who refuse to consider the harmful and immediate impact of immigration on vulnerable people such as the elderly. 

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