Right, hands up — who remembers Matteo Salvini? Yes, him — the former deputy prime minister of Italy and leader of the League who, this time last year, was all over the news with his hard line on refugees.
What with coronavirus and Italy shutting down early and very tightly, you might be forgiven for thinking that Salvini has disappeared off the face of the Earth.
No, quite the opposite in fact — and he is hoping that he can stir up trouble and revive his flagging political fortunes by using the coronavirus pandemic as one more reason why Italians should shut the door and seal their borders on the thousands of desperate refugees who put their lives on the line and euros onto the pockets of people smugglers, making an all-or-nothing perilous voyage north across the Mediterranean towards landfall in the European Union.
Salvini has a sketchy record when it comes to dealing with refugees and, if an Italian court finds him guilty of kidnapping and forcible confinement of refugees in two pending investigations, he’ll have a criminal record to boot and be unable to hold public office again.
It’s been a torrid year for the former interior minister who seemed well on course to heading up the most right-wing government in Italian history since the end of the Second World War. Salvini had tried to out-manoeuvre his party’s coalition rivals by orchestrating a general election through a no-confidence process against Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. It backfired badly — largely due to Salvini’s over-eagerness to drive a wedge between the League and the Five Star Movement — with the fallout leaving Salvini out of office and out of power. It’s all the more surprising that just three months earlier, he was riding high, the de facto leader of a pan-European right-wing coalition that made inroads in direct elections to the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
Why Salvini faces kidnapping charges
Earlier this month, a majority of Italy’s senators voted to remove parliamentary immunity from Salvini, paving the way for prosecutors to pursue the kidnapping charges against the former interior minister. It’s the second time the senate has taken such a step against Salvini — it did so in February also — increasing his legal perils once more.
His potential incarceration woes stem from his orders to port and maritime officials to shut Italian ports to ships trying to offload hundreds of refugees plucked from perilous waters and leaky trafficking boats. Given that the refugees and rescuers were unable to land and were detained or turned away, Salvini effectively ordered their illegal detention — hence the kidnapping charges.
But he’s not one to keep quiet, take the easy path or indeed quit while he’s technically head and out of prison — which is why he’s trying to capitalise on coronavirus cases among refugees to try and raise the League’s flagging poll numbers.
Italy has been the hardest-hit nation in Europe as a result of the pandemic. And with Italy shut down for three months, Salvini has been deprived of opportunities to rally his supporters.
Salvini’s rhetoric is still the same — blasting away at Conte and anyone else who might boost his standing. He’s refusing to wear a mask and is fuming against the government for helping refugees come ashore who might be potentially infected with coronavirus.
Italy has been the hardest-hit nation in Europe as a result of the pandemic. And with Italy shut down for three months, Salvini has been deprived of opportunities to rally his supporters — much like President Donald Trump has been deprived of his campaign-style rallies. It couldn’t come at a worse time — since Salvini tried to force a general election, support for the League has slumped by one-third.
In his defence against the kidnapping charges, Salvini says he was simply following government policy — even if it was he who set the policy.
Why refugees are no longer an issues for Italians
Last year when Salvini was shutting up shop, just 3,000 refugees made it to Italy in July. Some 14,000 have made it to Italy now — giving the League leader lots of targets to moan about. Some 7,000 landed in June, mostly from the Sahel nations and Libya.
While Salvini is denouncing the increased rate of arrivals, the reality is that it’s still far below the summer monthly average of 26,000 arriving at the height of the crisis between 2014 and 2017.
Maybe, and apologies for the pub, but maybe the refugee ship has sailed for Salvini and the League? Italians seem to care now — and are much more focused on bread and butter issues rather than blaming someone else for their woes. Some 34,000 Italians died during the pandemic, the country’s economy is slowly starting to recover and under Conte’s premiership, it will benefit most from a €750 billion (Dh3.2 billion) loan and grant fund put together by the EU leadership and agreed to in late July.
The wheels of the Italian justice system move at a truly turtle pace indeed, and it is likely to be years before the second case is ever aired in an Italian courtroom. While it might burnish his credentials with the right, it might also prevent him from being appointed prime minister of Italy should any future general election place him and the League in such a position — and that’s not even taking into account just how difficult government formation talks in Rome can be. Any coalition must be able to command majorities in both the lower chamber of Deputies and upper Senate of the Republic.
The first real hurdle facing Salvini comes with a date before an Italian magistrate in October in the prosecution where his parliamentary immunity was lifted in February.