‘Italians first’: Italy’s far-right leader echoes Trump in election campaign

The leader of Italy's far-right party, Matteo Salvini, repeated the slogan 'Italians first' in a TV interview in which he laid out plans to expel hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants.

'Italians first': Italy's far-right leader echoes Trump in election campaign
Matteo Salvini pictured in Milan this week. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

“In Italy there are too many illegal immigrants who go around making trouble. I can't take it anymore,” said Salvini on political talk show Dimartedì.

Salvini's Northern League party is part of a centre-right alliance led by Silvio Berlusconi and currently leading opinion polls.

Salvini said that if he became prime minister, he would ensure that within a year 100,000 “illegal migrants” would be sent back to their countries of origin, saying: “In this moment of crisis and unemployment, the more migrants that come in, the more confusion.”

However, it is not clear how he plans to overcome the bureaucratic obstacles that have slowed down deportations, including the difficulty of tracking down those who live without documents and work in the black economy, or dealing with countries of origin that refuse to accept deported migrants.

The Northern League leader tweeted along with the show, using the hashtag #Primagliitaliani (“Italians first”), one of the party's slogans in the 2018 election campaign and a sentiment echoed in several of his statements.

He accused former PM Matteo Renzi of “betraying the Italians” and said the Northern League would put forward as a candidate “anyone who recognizes themselves in the League's slogan 'Italians first'”.

The day before he had said on Twitter that this slogan was the party's “only objective”.

The 'Italians First' slogan, with its clear parallel to Donald Trump's catchphrase 'America First', is one of several recent shifts in Salvini's rhetoric which give insight into how the party hopes to gain votes in the 2018 election scheduled for March 4th.

It doesn't come as a surprise to see Salvini emulating Trump; he has regularly shared messages in support of the US president, even before his election victory, describing him as a “heroic and colourful person” who shared many of Salvini's own views.

When the pair met, Salvini tweeted a photo of him and Trump smiling and doing thumbs-up signs, though Trump denied claims he had told the Northern League leader “I hope you become prime minister soon”, and said he didn't even know who Salvini was. But that didn't deter Salvini, who was the first Italian politician to congratulate Trump on his election, tweeting “Go, Donald, GO” and the hashtag #oratoccaanoi (“now it's our turn”).

By repeating 'Italians first', Salvini also demonstrated the shift in tactics from the party, which was originally founded as a secessionist movement in the northern area it calls Padania.

In 2014, the Northern League launched a sister movement aimed at Italy's south and titled Noi con Salvini (“Us with Salvini”). This angered party founder Umberto Bossi, but Salvini said of the party's previous criticism of mafia activity, low employment figures and crime in the southern regions: “We have never attacked citizens of the south, only those who manage it”.

Under Salvini's leadership, the Northern League has changed its focus from campaigning for autonomy for the northern regions to a heightened emphasis on its anti-immigration and anti-EU stance.

In his Tuesday interview, he said: “My League is a league which has chosen to speak to all of Italy” as well as saying he was “less and less interested” in differences between the political right and left.

The Northern League also dropped the word ‘north’ from their official logo in late December, approving a simple logo with the word ‘League’ above the party’s image of 12th-century Lombard warrior Alberto da Giussano.

On the new logo, the heading 'Lega' is now accompanied by the new slogan ‘Salvini premier’, yet another sign that the party is increasingly focussed on its figurehead. 

If the centre-right bloc gains a majority, either Forza Italia or the Northern League will choose the country's next prime minister, depending which of the two parties gets more votes. Currently, Forza Italia is just ahead with opinion polls showing it with 16 percent of the vote compared to the League's 14 percent; however, Forza Italia's leader Berlusconi is ineligible to run for office due to a tax fraud conviction.

Salvini also defended the party against accusations of racism in the Tuesday interview, after a Northern League politician said that migration threatened to “wipe out our white race” in what he later claimed was a slip of the tongue

Speaking on Tuesday, the party leader said that “the only antidote to racism is controlled immigration”.



Why Italy is fighting EU plans to limit vehicle emissions

Italy's government is leading a revolt against an EU plan for a green car transition, vowing to protect the automotive industry in a country still strongly attached to the combustion engine - despite the impact of climate change.

Why Italy is fighting EU plans to limit vehicle emissions

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s hard-right coalition, which came into office last October, tried and failed to block EU plans to ban the sale of new cars running on fossil fuels by 2035, which her predecessor Mario Draghi had supported.

But this week the government took the fight to planned ‘Euro 7’ standards on pollutants, joining with seven other EU member states – including France and Poland – to demand Brussels scrap limits due to come into force in July 2025.

READ ALSO: Why electric cars aren’t more popular in Italy

“Italy is showing the way, our positions are more and more widely shared,” claimed Enterprise Minister Adolfo Urso, a fervent proponent of national industry in the face of what he has called an “ideological vision” of climate change.

The EU plan “is clearly wrong and not even useful from an environmental point of view”, added Transport Minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League party, which shares power with Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy.

Salvini led the failed charge against the ban on internal combustion engines, branding it “madness” that would “destroy thousands of jobs for Italian workers” while he claimed it would benefit China, a leader in producing electric vehicles.

Electric car being charged

Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP

Federico Spadini from Greenpeace Italy lamented that “environmental and climate questions are always relegated to second place”, blaming a “strong industrial lobby in Italy” in the automobile and energy sectors.

“None of the governments in recent years have been up to the environmental challenge,” he told AFP.

“Unfortunately, Italy is not known in Europe as climate champion. And it’s clear that with Meloni’s government, the situation has deteriorated,” he said.

Low demand

Jobs are a big factor. In 2022, Italy had nearly 270,000 direct or indirect employees in the automotive sector, which accounted for 5.2 percent of GDP.

The European Association of Automotive Suppliers (CLEPA) has warned that switching to all electric cars could lead to more than 60,000 job losses in Italy by 2035 for automobile suppliers alone.

READ ALSO: Italians and their cars are inseparable – will this ever change?

“Since Fiat was absorbed by Stellantis in 2021, Italy no longer has a large automobile industry, but it remains big in terms of components, which are all orientated towards traditional engines,” noted Lorenzo Codogno, a former chief economist at the Italian Treasury.

For consumers too, the electric revolution has yet to arrive.

Italy has one of the highest car ownership rates in Europe: ranking fourth behind Liechtenstein, Iceland and Luxembourg with 670 passenger cars per 1,000 inhabitants, according to the latest Eurostat figures from 2020.

But sales of electric cars fell by 26.9 percent in 2022, to just 3.7 percent of the market, against 12.1 percent for the EU average.

Electric cars charge at a hub in central Milan on March 23, 2023. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Subsidies to boost zero emissions vehicles fell flat, while Minister Urso has admitted that on infrastructure, “we are extremely behind”.

Italy has just 36,000 electric charging stations, compared to 90,000 for the Netherlands, a country the fraction of the size of Italy, he revealed.

READ ALSO: These are the most (and least) eco-friendly towns in Italy

“There is no enthusiasm for electric cars in Italy,” Felipe Munoz, an analyst with the automotive data company Jato Dynamics, told AFP.

“The offer is meagre, with just one model manufactured by national carmaker Fiat.”

In addition, “purchasing power is not very high, people cannot afford electric vehicles, which are expensive. So the demand is low, unlike in Nordic countries.”

Gerrit Marx, head of the Italian truck manufacturer Iveco, agrees.

“We risk turning into a big Cuba, with very old cars still driving around for years, because a part of the population will not be able to afford an electric model,” he said.