Few foreign travellers visit Pontida, a small town off the Italian tourist trail where, in 1167, the Lombard League formed an alliance against Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. In recent years, Pontida has gained fame as the birthplace and nursery of a very different kind of political organisation: the Northern League. Matteo Salvini – the party’s leader since 2014, and Italy’s interior minister and deputy prime minister since May this year – has called for his country to leave both the eurozone and “Soviet Europe”. Having risen to power on a platform of populist opposition to migration, he returned to Pontida on 1 July to launch the “League of Leagues” – a pan-European alliance that would, he claimed, close Europe’s borders, demolish the “Brussels wall”, and empower Europeans.
For Salvini, this is a moment of triumph. The Northern League’s first leader, Umberto Bossi (now a 76-year-old senator), founded the party in 1990 with a purported declaration of independence for the Padania region. Salvini transformed the party into a national organisation, rebranded the “League”, in 2014. It now has the support of around 30 percent of the electorate (compared to around 5-6 percent in 2014, and 17 percent with elections in March).
This dramatic increase in popularity has several causes. One is Salvini’s decision to place security issues at the centre of his political strategy. Another is his lack of rivals – in both his party and the opposition. Internal crises and poor leadership have hobbled Forza Italia and the Democratic Party, while support for the Five Star Movement has dropped from 32.7 percent of the electorate to 28.7 percent since March due to its alliance with the far-right League – an alliance that the movement must maintain if it is to stay in power. Salvini, a well-rounded politician young enough to adapt to swift changes in the political climate, has spent years perfecting his rhetoric on supposed enemies of the nation: residents of southern Italy in the 1990s and the 2000s; migrants today.
Wider European politics also suits his agenda. The migration crisis has created divisions within and between members of the European Union, as seen in the recent dispute in Germany between Chancellor Angela Merkel and Interior Minister Horst Seehofer. The crisis has contributed to a rightward shift in European politics towards anti-EU parties. Salvini appears likely to use these trends as the basis of his continent-wide campaign for the 2019 European parliamentary elections.
The lead-up to the 2019 elections will be crucial to Europe’s political makeup. Salvini has declared that he will remain in power for 30 years.
Indeed, Salvini often repeats the mantra that, with the EU having abandoned Italy to face large-scale unmanaged migration alone, only he can challenge leaders in Brussels and guarantee Italians’ safety. He has several European allies who will help him push forward in this, including Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front.
On the margins of the EU’s meeting in Innsbruck this week, Salvini met with Seehofer and the Austrian interior minister, Herbert Kickl, to form a coalition that would defend Europe’s borders, support the Libyan authorities in curtailing migration, and create migration centres on the coast of north Africa to ensure that only refugees reach Europe. The implementation of the deal could become the first test of Salvini’s strategy: pushing for bilateral cooperation with a few member states before creating an ad hoc coalition that provides wider support for his policies.
The dispute in Germany came at an ideal time for Salvini; some voters will see it as evidence for his argument that a “Germanised Europe” will soon collapse. Although he is almost certainly aware that the dispute appears to have been resolved, he has a political interest in continuing to emphasise its importance.
Meanwhile, Salvini will use the League of the Leagues to promote his sovereigntist, Eurosceptic vision and challenge the established parties he sees as having failed to protect Europeans. Although the organisation currently has only a few representatives in the European Parliament within the Europe of Nations and Freedom Group, this contingent is almost certain to grow significantly in 2019 (especially given that EU citizens often vote in European elections on national issues).
However, there are several potential obstacles in Salvini’s path. Counterintuitively, one could come in the form of the Eurosceptic parties and Visegrád governments (in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) he counts as allies. It remains unclear what role Le Pen and other populist leaders will play. Like Salvini, she has evolved politically and seems to have clear plans. But is she willing to allow Salvini to take the lead in the League of Leagues? Although there is significant support for populist, anti-EU parties across Europe, these parties may struggle to reach a compromise that reconciles their very different interests and priorities.
The same is true for Salvini’s cooperation with the Visegrád group, which initially supported his stance on migration but has blocked his plans to relocate migrants in Italy to other European countries. They could be similarly resistant to future initiatives, limiting the alliance to ad doc collaboration or causing it to collapse entirely.
Moreover, while Merkel has proved willing to put domestic concerns before European interests – as reflected in her migration deal with Seehofer – her public offers of support to Italy undermine Salvini’s narrative. Were she to ally with French President Emmanuel Macron in relaunching the European project, they could create a formidable defence against anti-EU initiatives.
Other issues could also confound Salvini’s plans. Firstly, he is a national leader but not yet a European one (he is attempting to address this through meetings with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, as well as Geert Wielders and Jimmie Akesson, leaders of Dutch and Swedish populist parties respectively). Secondly, his European plan will require support from traditional League voters, who generally focus on regional interests rather than wider issues. Salvini has appealed to them to “free European people”, but will this approach work? Thirdly, domestic law may prevent him from realising his initiatives, such as international human rights treaties.
The lead-up to the 2019 elections will be crucial to Europe’s political makeup. Salvini has declared that he will remain in power for 30 years. Although the volatility of Italian politics suggests otherwise, the EU must take him and his allies seriously if the European project is to have a future.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.