Luigi Di Maio: From political upstart to Italy’s foreign minister

Italy's new foreign minister, Five Star Movement chief Luigi Di Maio, is a telegenic young gun who has turned his anti-establishment party into a mainstream political force capable of allying with right and left.

Luigi Di Maio: From political upstart to Italy's foreign minister
Luigi Di Maio, leader of the Five Star Movement and new Foreign Minister. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

His boyish, clean-cut looks hide a stubborn streak: the 33-year old was deputy prime minister in the outgoing government and had been threatening to torpedo the new tie-up with Italy's centre-left Democratic Party (PD) if he was demoted.

Derided by critics as a self-centred robot, he was persuaded to accept the trophy role of foreign minister instead. After the cabinet was officially sworn in on Thursday morning, he is the youngest foreign minister in Italy's postwar history.

READ ALSO: Here is Italy's new cabinet in full

Di Maio led his party to astonishing electoral success last year, propelling the grass-roots mavericks to the forefront of Italy's political scene for the very first time as it signed a contract to govern with the nationalist League.

The young Neapolitan's willingness to jump into bed with both the League and the PD — who Five Star has spent years ferociously criticizing — has caused critics to accuse him of putting power before policies. 

Luigi Di Maio (L) shakes hands with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte as he is sworn in as foreign minister. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

'Courageous and ambitious'

The country's fresh start with a left-leaning, pro-European coalition was undermined somewhat by Di Maio's insistence that he did not regret anything done during the 14 months of coalition with the far-right.

On Wednesday he said the new government would be “courageous and ambitious” and “pick up where we left off”. He said he would focus particularly on Africa, the hot-button issue of migration, and Italy's rapport with emerging economies.

His appointment was met with a mixed reaction in Italy, with some Twitter users saying Di Maio did not speak a word of English. And he will have to pull out all the charm stops with neighbouring France, after ruffling feathers in Paris in February by travelling to meet “yellow vest” anti-government protesters.

Di Maio's election as party leader in 2017 represented an important shift for Five Star — from the frantic conspiratorial ranting of iconoclast co-founder and stand-up comedian Beppe Grillo to a new measured, reassuring style. The southern upstart began life as a Grillo disciple, but became increasingly irritated by the loud-mouthed comic's attempts to direct the Movement from behind the scenes during the political crisis.

Di Maio has been involved with the M5S since its creation in 2009, campaigning against corruption and the European Union while promoting political transparency and direct democracy.

Following the February 2013 election, Five Star won a spectacular quarter of the vote and Di Maio, then aged just 26, was among 108 M5S candidates elected to the Chamber of Deputies — the lower house of the Italian parliament. A month later, he became the chamber's youngest ever deputy speaker.

'Reassuring to mums'

His elevation to party leader via an online vote, in which Di Maio's competitors were relative unknowns, prompted many commentators to brand his election as a coronation organized by “puppet-master” Grillo.

Others questioned his political authenticity, accusing him of being a hybrid creation of Grillo and consultants. “Di Maio was created to be moderate, reassuring to mums,” said Italian political journalist Jacopo Iacoboni.

The mums, however, were more drawn to ranting strongman Matteo Salvini, head of the anti-immigrant League, who quickly outstripped Di Maio in popularity thanks to his “Italians first” message and relentless social media skills. Di Maio's party also slumped in the polls and its deal with the PD was seen as a bid to avoid a potentially disastrous election.

ANALYSIS: How Matteo Salvini lost his gamble to become Italy's PM – for now

The new foreign minister was born on July 6th 1986 into a well-to-do family in Avellino near Naples. His father Antonio had a small construction business and was an activist for the now-defunct neo-fascist party Italian Social Movement, while his mother Paola was a Latin teacher.

The eldest of three children, Di Maio studied computer engineering at Naples University, later switched to law and never completed a degree. According to a CV posted on M5S's website, he founded his own web and social media marketing business while studying, as well as working on video projects.

A focus on marketing and presentation helped the M5S shift its tone on key issues with Di Maio at the helm. The M5S had consistently called for Italy to leave the single currency eurozone, but Di Maio has moderated their stance, making conciliatory overtures to the bloc which are set to continue under the tie-up with pro-Europe PD.

By AFP's Ella Ide

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Italy’s government proposes bill to make surrogacy a ‘universal crime’

Italy’s parliament is set to debate a bill that would expand criminal penalties for the use of surrogacy, in what opponents say is part of a broader attack on gay rights by the country’s hard-right government.

Italy's government proposes bill to make surrogacy a 'universal crime'

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is lead signatory on the new bill, which would make surrogacy – already a crime in Italy – a criminal act for Italians who make use of the practice anywhere in the world.

The motion combines previous draft laws from the ruling Brothers of Italy, Forza Italia and League parties, and will be debated in the lower house from Wednesday, according to news agency Ansa.

The move comes days after the government ordered the city of Milan to stop issuing birth certificates to the children of same-sex couples on the grounds that the practice violates Italian law.

READ ALSO: Milan stops recognising children born to same-sex couples

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has long been outspoken against surrogacy, which she has described as “a commodification of women’s bodies and of human life.”

In a heated parliamentary debate on the rights of same sex couples on Monday, her Brothers of Italy colleague Federico Mollicone, chair of the lower house’s Culture Committee, said surrogacy was “more serious than paedophilia.”

Similar comments were made in 2017 by a minister of the now-defunct New Centre Right party, who likened entering into a surrogacy arrangement to committing a sex crime.

READ ALSO: ‘Surrogacy is like a sex crime’: Italy minister

In early 2022, as leader of the Brothers of Italy party in opposition to Mario Draghi’s coalition government, Meloni put forward the same motion to make surrogacy a “universal crime”.

The text was adopted by the Justice Committee of the former legislature – a preliminary step before it can be debated in the lower house – last April, but did not go further at the time.

The crime of surrogacy in Italy is currently punishable with a prison sentence of over three years or a fine of between 600,000 and one million euros; penalties that the government is proposing to extend to all Italian citizens who engage in the practice, regardless of where it occurs.

Whether such a law would even be possible to pass or enforce is unclear, and legal experts have dismissed it as impractical. 

“There are no conditions that would justify an expansion of penal intervention of this type,” Marco Pelissero, a professor of criminal law at the University of Turin, told L’Espresso newspaper.

The idea of a universal crime “does not even exist in the legal language,” he said.

But the proposal has aroused fears that, if passed, the law could result in large numbers of same-sex parents whose children were born via surrogates being sent to prison.

“With this law we would be exposing families with young children to criminal law, quite simply criminalising procreative choices made abroad in countries where these practices are regulated,” Angelo Schillaci, a professor of Comparative Public Law at La Sapienza University, told the news site Fanpage.

‘We are aware of how hard this government is working to strip even the most basic rights from same-sex-parent families,” Alessia Crocini, head of the Rainbow Families organisation, said last week when it was first announced that Milan had been banned from registering the children of gay couples.

The move resulted in large-scale protests across the city on Saturday, and Milan Mayor Beppe Sala has pledged to fight the change.

“It is an obvious step backwards from a political and social point of view,” he said in a recent podcast interview.

On Tuesday, European Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders commented that European Union member states are required by EU law to recognise the children of same-sex couples.

“In line with the LGBTIQ equality strategy for 2020-2025, the Commission is in continuous dialogue with Member States regarding the implementation of the judgments of the Court of Justice of the European Union.”

“This also includes the obligation for Member States to recognise” children “of same-sex parents, for the purpose of exercising the rights conferred by the EU”, Reynders reportedly said in response to question about the developments in Milan.