Matteo Salvini: EU must change or cease to be

While the Catalan crisis dominates the headlines, a similar story is breaking out in Italy – with the country’s northern regions gearing up for a wide autonomy referendum. Can the vote succeed – and how will Rome deal with the results? We ask Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s Northern League party.

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Sophie Shevarnadze: Matteo Salvini welcome to the show. It's great to have you on our programme today. The Italian regions of Lombardia and Veneto are going to have a referendum on greater autonomy from the central government on the 22nd of October. You say they ‘have chosen a peaceful path towards that. But so did the people in Catalonia, look what happened there. How can you be sure that there will be no rubber bullets and tear gas in Milan and Venice when the day of the vote comes?

Matteo Salvini: First of all, thank you for having me. Now, about the two upcoming referendums. They are fundamentally different from the one in Catalonia. Referendums in Lombardia and Veneto will be held based on the Italian Constitution, with the court and the Italian government’s approval. The law enforcement will be helping us, instead of forcing people out of the polling stations. It’s not independence we demand, but wider autonomy, so that regions can have oversight over schools, healthcare, roads, help the disabled and allocate funding to various other operations. The goal is to reduce costs and spend money more efficiently, which is not against with the Italian Constitution. So in Spain there is conflict, while in Italy we have a peaceful process in line with the existing legislation.

SS: So how will the vote change Italy, if people support greater autonomy? Will that make other regions follow suit - and if every region votes for fiscal independence, where does that leave the country financially?

MS: We aren’t asking to leave all the money in the regions. As of now, the government gets €70bn a year from Lombardy and Veneto, but this money doesn’t come back to us. We want the regions to be able to allocate some of this money to schools and healthcare. We want less red tape when it comes to the central government, less EU bureaucracy, fewer restrictions set by Brussels, and we want to develop the southern part of the country where we’ve had inefficient governance for over 50 years, where there has been virtually no growth in terms of education, healthcare and railways for many years. So devolution of powers and increasing regional funding would benefit both the northern and the southern parts of the country.

SS: Do you feel like the Northern demand for special status is fracturing Italy, aren’t you afraid you may start a disintegration process with this vote?

MS: Five out of twenty Italian regions already have a special status. There are 20 regions in Italy, five of which have a special status and keep 90% of the taxes they collect. We want other regions – if they so wish – that’s exactly why we need the referendums, to find out - to be able to handle money and their local matters more efficiently. So we’re not talking about some kind of strife or conflict, we’re talking about the things envisaged in our Constitution.

SS: The Catalan example - do you feel like it may scare Rome into giving into Northern demands?

MS: Catalonia is a different story. When as many as 2mn people decide to vote, you can’t ignore the results of the referendum. Violence doesn’t solve any problems. I hope Madrid and Barcelona finally come to terms, though it will be very hard to do. The Northern League party has embarked on a longer and even more complicated journey, but the path we chose is undoubtedly safer and more peaceful at the same time.

SS: Tell me something, why aren’t Lega Nord and allies pursuing independence all the way through - isn’t fiscal autonomy only a half-measure, wouldn’t you rather have the right to make decisions yourself?

MS: This is exactly the reason why our party was established 30 years ago. It was created to stand up for the regions and local communities. There was no European Union 30 years ago, and now I am sitting here in Strasbourg in its headquarters. The EU is a problem not only for the northern regions of Italy but for all European countries. It is the European Union that imposes sanctions on Russia, crippling our agricultural sector and robbing Italy of €7bn a year. Today, we advocate the unity of Italy, but with autonomy for the regions and federalism. We do so to, first and foremost, defend ourselves against the onslaught of the EU and multinational corporations which are simply seeking to annihilate us. What is it that I don’t agree with when it comes to Catalonia? See, many of those who are in favour of the independence of Catalonia want to remain in the EU, keep the euro and open their borders to migrants from North Africa. That kind of independence, independence with Brussels in the driver’s seat, without cutting off the flow of migrants would pose grave problems to those who wish for it.

SS: So you also said that you don’t want to blow up the Euro, that a referendum on abandoning it would be unconstitutional. How does it go along with your earlier statement that Euro is an experiment gone bad?

MS: I believe that one single currency for 18 economies, each different in its own way, that just won’t work in the long term. But statistics here is more important than anything else. Look, since the introduction of the common currency Italy’s debt has risen by 900bn euros. Six Nobel Prize winners are unanimous in saying that this experiment has failed and we should not go any further down this road. Yes, we understand that there is no way to hold a referendum on the euro, but we are determined to become part of the government and that is why we invited economists to figure out what we should do when the euro collapses (since we should not rule out this possibility), what to do to prevent a catastrophe.

SS: So with anti-European sentiment on the rise - after Brexit, even in Italy 44% would vote to leave the EU - the leaders of the union are talking about reform. What kind of reform does the EU need, and will it ever happen?

MS: Europe has to either change or cease to exist. People who work in this building, the EU headquarters, should change the rules so that the European Union would have to work on fewer issues but with better results. It should be paying more attention to protecting external borders, fighting against terrorism and curbing illegal migration, as well as harmonising economic policies and the judicial system. Otherwise, the Europe we have today is doomed. It will transform into a strange loose community of 27 countries with nothing in common. This is the reason why the Northern League, if we come to power, is ready to give the EU one last chance to become useful and beneficial – the kind of union it was meant to be at its inception. EU headquarters is a place where you can find only people who are interested in business and don’t care about values, culture, identity, family or any existing differences between nations and cultures at all. Again, Europe either changes or ceases to exist. But I am an optimist, so I hope that the situation will change.

SS: So, what do you think, without further integration wouldn't the European Union actually lose its status, its efficiency as an organization?

MS: Someone once said that the united Europe came to life too quickly and was too big. There are countries which are now negotiating accession to the EU, for example, Turkey. I, for one, think it is sheer madness to seek expansion of the EU by allowing Turkey to join, it’s folly to try and incorporate it in the system of European values. And there are also those, like Iceland, who suspended their bids, on the other hand. I personally think that we should slow down and review trade policies and alliance building, including the military and strategic alliances that the EU is working on today. An end should be put to financing the bodies that intervene in the domestic affairs of other countries, and I mean the intervention in the situation in Ukraine and Crimea, as this poorly corresponds with the principles of the EU which is supposed to be unbiased and objective in its decision-making.     

SS: France and Germany have been discussing multi-speed integration for the European Union. Is the union in danger here? Are members going to drift from each other?

MS: It’s obvious that these days France and Germany behave like they’re the boss. Almost all agreements and directives are adopted only with France and Germany’s approval. There is even an acronym for Southern European countries – like Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain – pigs. German companies need docile satellites like Northern European countries and the Baltic states, but Italy believes enough is enough. These trade and bank agreements – it’s all crazy, just as crazy as the attempts to interfere in what’s happening outside the EU. Here in Strasbourg there’s not a word about 700 people getting hurt as a result of the Barcelona referendum. A Europe shaped by France and Germany’s ideas, with their unchecked ambition to expand, has no future.

SS: But don’t you think it’s only fair that two countries that are the strongest ones in Europe, have the strongest economies, taking the lead and giving themselves the right to make decisions?

MS: Italy remains Europe’s second-biggest manufacturing power. The common currency was pushed by Germany, and Germany is still the one laying down economic rules, but in terms of manufacturing Italy is still ahead of France. So yes, I’m concerned about the agreements between France and Germany that leave the rest of us out in the cold. That’s why I want the Northern League to win the elections and to come to power in Italy, so that we won’t be obediently following France and Germany’s orders, with Macron and Merkel making decisions on behalf of all 27 EU member states. Seeing how our last few governments voiced no protest that all the decisions in Europe were made by France and Germany alone, the Northern League would never allow it, if we win. Just like Berlusconi, who as head of government had the courage to say no when the situation called for it.

SS: While the French and Dutch Eurosceptics have been defeated by pro-EU politicians in recent elections, in Germany (not to mention the UK) the Eurosceptic forces are seeing some success - do you see Euroscepticism prevailing in the long term, or is it on its way out?

MS: Undoubtedly, the results of recent elections are very important, particularly the results of the German federal election that a lot of the European media criticised so much, and the outcome of the Brexit referendum in Great Britain… I would also add to that list the upcoming election in Austria scheduled for October 15, which is very soon. I hope the so-called Eurosceptics, allies of the Northern League, will win. I think everyone wants to change the current situation. Le Pen lost in France and Wilders failed to claim victory in the Netherlands, but still millions of people voted for them and for change. This is a clear signal to the united Europe: it should get back to sorting out the issues of unemployment, immigration and families – otherwise the advance of so-called populists and Eurosceptics will continue. I don’t consider myself a populist, neither am I a racist, xenophobe or Eurosceptic. But I am a family man and I have common sense – I just want more security, more jobs for my people and fewer migrants in my country. So, if Europe doesn’t change, then the number of Europeans voting against the so-called political correctness will rise. There are millions of them already.

SS: You’ve been repeatedly calling on easing EU sanctions against Russia. Sanctions have cost Italy 7 billion euro and up to 200 thousand jobs. There’s also staunch opposition to sanctions in Germany. Yet Brussels is persistent in keeping them in place. How do you plan to push for sanctions to be dropped in this situation?

MS: The Northern League has always voted against these economic sanctions as we think there is no sense in them. A referendum took place in Crimea, and an absolute majority voted for becoming part of the Russian Federation – I just cannot understand why the EU decided to intervene. It hit not only our economic, but also cultural ties. Russia and Italy used to have very close relations, and we should get back to that today not only in terms of business, but also in terms of cultural ties and similarity of political positions. This is why one of the priorities of our government would be to hold a vote against extending anti-Russian sanctions that, unfortunately, have been supported by all the center-left Italian governments over recent years.

SS: So, how are you going to make Brussels lift them? Do you have any precise measures in your head that you want to push through?

MS: For this we need to introduce changes to the EU treaties – the Maastricht Treaty, the Schengen Agreement, the Treaty of Lisbon, and the Dublin Regulation. We need to review and amend these treaties, some of which are over 25 years old. New treaties have to limit EU’s powers, ensure border security and at the same time allow no interference when it comes to trade, agriculture and family, since the European Parliament now believes it has the right to define what ‘family’ means. If the Northern League wins, we will politely but firmly say that we need to review the existing treaties, limit EU powers and provide funding to the EU to make it efficient, while leaving issues like trade, agriculture, schools and family in the hands of national governments.

SS: It’s very ambitious programme because  right now what we have is Italian businessmen, Italian politicians, Italian diplomats and leaders publicly saying that sanctions against Russia should be dropped - but they still aren’t dropped, and Italy ends up voting for their renewal. Are Italian statements hollow, just posturing to appease Moscow?

MS: I know it’s a very ambitious programme, but I’m optimistic. Back when I just headed up the party we only had 3% of the votes, and now we have 15%. I know that many Italian politicians and businessmen make a lot of promises and then fail or don’t want to fulfill them. Maybe they are scared, or maybe it’s because they have vested interests of their own.But I’m convinced we will be able to resolve the issue of sanctions against Russia and bring European treaties under review if we get voters’ support. We will be able to restore good economic ties with Russia and change, if not all, then some of the Europe-imposed rules that were a mistake.

SS: You were positive about Donald Trump’s coming to power saying that this would benefit both Europe and Italy. Are you still hopeful of that?

MS: I was happy to hear Trump was elected president. Unlike many politicians and reporters, I read his political program from cover to cover and agree with many things in it. His presidency got off to a rocky start – he has enemies both inside and outside his party. Some of his initiatives, like the tax reform, are perfectly consistent with our party’s goals. Trump proposes to have a 20% flat tax rate for businesses and households, and, having looked into it, we proposed to make it 15% in Italy. As for foreign policy, in my humble opinion his advisors were far from the best, so it will be quite a challenge. In any case, I stand by my words that the world is much better off with Trump as US president than it would have been with Hillary Clinton.

SS: Your programme includes tough anti-migrant measures - basically, kicking them out of Italy. Where will they go? Are you going to throw them into the sea?

MS: We want to adopt the same migration laws that other European countries and other countries around the world have. The Italian government does take the necessary steps, overdue as they may be, entering into agreements with Libya and Tunisia to secure its sea borders and try to monitor the matters concerning transporting migrants. The goal is not to divide the migrants evenly between Italy and other European states, but to take the money we now spend at home and efficiently spend it in Africa instead. We shouldn’t have to block migrant boats, drown them, bomb them or build border walls. The goal is to prevent the influx of migrants by helping such countries as Nigeria, Guinea, Niger, and Bangladesh (that’s where most of the migrants come to Italy from) develop their economy. Only a small part of migrants fled because of a war: political refugees make up a mere 10% of all the applicants. The rest leave their countries for economic reasons. But, if I recall correctly, 4mn Italians are living in poverty and 4mn are unemployed. We can’t allow this number to grow because millions of desperate migrants arrive in our country. It would be much better to take all the money that is so inefficiently spent in Italy and Europe today and invest it in Africa.

SS: Isn’t giving money to Libyan non-state militias to stop migration like Italy does now, in essence, prolonging the Libyan anarchy that caused this migration problem in the first place?

MS: We’ve been calling for a dialogue with both Libyan governments for two years now, because there really are at least two governments right now in Libya, with 150 tribes living there. Truth be told, I don’t know how they spend our money there, that’s up to the Italian government, France and the EU. We need to stabilize the situation in Libya to prevent a new influx of migrants. The recent trend is migrants from Tunisia and Algeria coming to Italy through Sicily and Sardinia. If one country closes its borders and doesn’t let them out, migrants will go by a different route through a different country. The borders need to be secure, and that’s the EU’s responsibility. It has to maintain a dialogue with the North African leaders, and right now it’s not doing enough in that respect.

SS: So, isn’t Italy, and the EU, in effect, becoming victims of extortion and racketeering by hoodlums with guns - if they’re forcing you to pay to stop the migrant flow?

MS: No, I don’t think so, despite the deal the EU made with Turkey to stem migration that cost it €6bn. Those who are wondering what’s going on in Libya should know that the EU made a €6bn deal with Erdogan’s Turkey to block the flow of migrants. Since they decided paying Turkey was the right thing to do, I would say it would be equally sensible to invest this money in Libya, if that’s where it really goes.

SS: Reuters has recently reported that a former mafia boss is leading a group stopping migrants on the ground in Libya - quite successfully, leading to a massive drop in arrivals. This is a relief for the politicians, but is it worth empowering organised crime?

MS: We’re talking about large-scale migration here. Over three and a half years Italy admitted about 700,000 people. It clearly benefits the mafia, because migrants are a “spare workforce” for organized crime. 40% of detainees in Italian jails are non-EU citizens. One thing is for sure – the more illegal migrants we have, the more organised crime benefits. There is no doubt about it, same as about the fact that the migrants have to work for a pittance. So by dealing with the influx of migrants we also prevent the mafia from getting new slaves.

SS:  You support aiding African countries, investing in their economy to help curb the migrant flow. How can you be sure the money invested won’t go to waste, to corruption, and will actually improve these poor states`economies?

MS: That’s probably the most important issue. There are some experts from North and Central Africa, I’ve read their articles, who urge the donors to stop helping them, stop giving them money, because that money is being spent on political bribes instead of building new roads, schools or hospitals. Which is why I believe it’s best – and the Northern League has some experience with this – to provide funding to specific organizations, schools and hospitals in those countries, because it’s true that to a large extent the money donated to help African children ends up in the pockets of shady African politicians. It’s vitally important to monitor where the money goes, so it’s a fair question.

SS: Mr Salvini, good luck with everything. Thank you for this interview today. I was talking to Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy's Northern League party, discussing the country's northern regions' drive for greater autonomy from Rome and how this would affect the European Union. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co. I’ll see you next time.