Salvini’s Migrant Ship Trial: How the European Establishment Keeps Boosting the Far Right

Salvini’s Migrant Ship Trial: How the European Establishment Keeps Boosting the Far Right

Salvini’s quest for power has just been aided by those who want to stop or punish him by putting him on trial.

The disheartening situation with the coronavirus outbreak in Italy should not eclipse the fact that Italian far-right leader Matteo Salvini has the kind of political adversaries every highly ambitious politician can dream of.

Namely, ones whose moves to take him down or punish him will not only catapult him into power but might even bestow a halo of martyrdom for the sake a grand cause upon his relentless, outspoken head.

That may very well end up being the end result of the decision of the Italian Senate earlier this month to strip off Salvini’s legal immunity in order to allow him to be tried for blocking a ship carrying migrants from entering Italy back in July 2019.

That is right: Salvini, the leader of the anti-immigrant and presumably far-right League party, who served as Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister in 2018 – 2019, in the far-left + far-right government of his party in a coalition with the leftist populist Five Stars Movement – has just been handed a great platform for promoting himself as, say, “a courageous defender of Italy and Europe from countless waves of migrants from Africa and the Middle East.” Or something of the sort.

At the end of July 2019, then Interior Minister Salvini refused to allow 131 rescued migrants off the Gregoretti coastguard boat until a deal was reached with other European states to host them.

He keeps insisting that was not an individual decision but a decision of the then Cabinet of then (and current) Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, but prosecutors in Sicily have started an investigation into the conditions on the boat, and a court in Catania has accused Salvini of “abuse of power”.

It is beyond obvious that those who voted to strip off Salvini’s immunity in order to punish him over a combination of harboring deep dislike for him, and his seeming thirst for power will end up ruing the day they made that decision.

Because the fact of the matter is if you want to stop the march of the far right, handing it a wonderful long-term publicity opportunity precisely on the count where it is strongest is a terrible, terrible idea.

The other fact of the matter is that the situation with the large-scale influx of migrants from the wider Middle East and Africa into the European Union, Western Europe in particular, is already controversial enough. The rationale Salvini puts forth to justify his actions cannot simply be dismissed without even being considered carefully.

What’s hardly disputable is that it has been this influx of migrants, which has intensified since 2015, more than anything else, more even than economic marginalization, that is the single most important factor driving the steady, unyielding and sustainable march towards power throughout Europe of the far right in its various forms.

The vast majority of people who end up supporting some form of the far right, especially its more extreme forms, are probably not inherently evil. Nor do they wake up as extremists some random morning. Whenever it starts to acquire mass appeal, the far right is usually a reaction to events, developments, or policies perceived as unfair, irrational, or unfathomable. If such perceptions are aided by socio-economic difficulties, the mix becomes even more explosive.

I already discussed this in detail in a recent article entitled “2019: The Year the Far Right Sustainably Surged in Europe and Why It Will Keep Growing”, and some of the elements of the forecast I made have, unfortunately, already been proven relevant by events in the German state of Thuringia. There the local ruling mainstream conservatives CDU and the liberal centrists FDR decided to collaborate for the first time with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), a development that rocked Germany’s political establishment, with Merkel’s supposed successor AKK deciding she didn’t even want to become Chancellor of Germany anymore.

Even more sadly and distressingly, the political mess in Thuringia has been followed by the mass murder of people of immigrant background committed by a far-right extremist in Hanau, a city in the German state of Hesse, Thuringia’s neighbor, albeit on the “better” western side of the former German-German Cold War border.

Clearly, the rise of the far right in Europe (in diverse reincarnations – from “moderate” to extreme) isn’t going away because the root causes remain in place, and Italy’s Matteo Salvini was already well-positioned to benefit from that situation anyway. In August 2019, he brought down Conte’s oxymoronic first Cabinet with the hopes of bringing about early elections, and grabbing power in the EU’s third most important member state and the world’s 8th largest economy.

The scenario in question was avoided by a last-minute political deal of the establishment left (the (social) Democratic Party) and the anti-establishment left, the Five Stars Movement, which formed another oxymoronic Cabinet presided by Giuseppe Conte.

Even in this case, the development is still in Salvini’s favor because the factors boosting the popularity of the far right aren’t going anywhere, and his type of political figures love to take their time. They can afford it, and they actually enjoy it. It makes their rise to power all the sweeter once they finally get it.

And now Salvini has been handed a great opportunity to acquire the image of a true defender of the Italian nation who is being prosecuted, or persecuted (as he would undoubtedly portray it) for fending off a foreign invasion (as he would undoubtedly portray it).

Check out some of Salvini’s quotes on the matter (quoted here, here, and here: )

“They’ll have to find a very large courtroom, for it will be a trial against the Italian people.”

“If I have to go to jail for defending an idea, I’ll go with my head held high.

“I have defended Italy. I will do it again when I get back into power.”

“I am absolutely calm and proud of what I did and I will do it again as soon as I return to government. I swore on the constitution, which states that defending the homeland is the duty of every citizen. I have defended Italy.”

And that’s just the beginning of a trial which is yet to start and will drag on for years. Salvini might actually come to power well before it ends. But in the meantime expect a lot more messianic overtones coming from him.

The vote of the Italian Senate this February was actually the second one on Salvini’s immunity over a decision of his to strand migrants. In March 2019, the Italian Senate, then with the votes of the Five Stars Movement, killed such a motion over his decision to prevent 177 migrants from disembarking the Diciotti coastguard ship in the summer of 2018.

And he also faces another trial for keeping the Open Arms migrant ship offshore for several days in August 2019.

Seeing an opportunity, Salvini himself has been so welcoming of the motion to strip off his immunity so he can stand trial for “defending Italy” that he urged his party’s Senators to back it. Maybe this should have given his possible clueless political opponents some clue.

Even though Salvini’s League party recently failed to win the important regional election in Emilia-Romagna at the end of January, he remains polarizingly popular, and any setbacks along the way to power are beloved potential assets for politicians of his type.

The migrant ship trial, in which he faces 15 years of prison “for protecting the nation”, may only make him far stronger politically, and it is astonishing to see how anti-far right forces, establishment or otherwise, in this case in Italy, fail to fathom the causes feeding the popularity of the far right, and fail to figure out how to snatch its momentum.

The times when far-rightists of various sorts, leaders and followers alike, could be dismissed just as clowns, outcasts, or psychopaths are long gone. (In Europe. And maybe also in the United States.)

Whichever mainstream or novel political movement or party is concerned by the sustainable rise of the far right, it must try to counter that by adopting everything from the far right’s programs or rhetoric that makes sense in terms of human decency, while leaving out any of its horrid distortions.

That should be done even if such measures – stemming from the legitimate issues the far right uses to propel itself to power – happen to be out of the comfort zones of the ruling elites, or politically incorrect, or just unpleasant. The world has been changing rapidly, probably not for the better, and it is high time for a lot of paradigm shifts and a lot of questioning of many conventional wisdoms.

It doesn’t sound very appealing to elites and voter who are used to a benevolent, highly liberal model – but otherwise the far right will slowly but steadily end up being all over the place (Europe).

The anti-far right elites and/or newcomers shouldn’t forget that the stigma on the politically incorrect far right is very strong, and once an average European decides to come out as a far-right adherent, they already sacrifice a lot, which leaves them with the potential to get radicalized further. This existing stigma, which involves a lot of public and social media shaming, among other things, must be handled very carefully to prevent precisely the “cornering” of the openly far-right supporters, and their turning into devoded deadenders with nothing to lose.

If you are scared of the far right’s potential coming to power, you can’t afford yourself two things: cluelessness about why that’s happening, and a lack of resolve to take uncomfortable decisions and actions.

Otherwise the Salvinis will eventually triumph, with the original, Italian one probably becoming among the first to do so, and a torch-bearer for the entire EU.

And, now that it has come that, which is a regrettable development in itself, one begins to wonder:

Considering the cluelessness of the old-school elites who’ve let it come to a situation in which the far right has been reborn or has reinvented itself, and is knocking on the gates, and considering the diversity of the far right itself (from neo-Nazis to pro-democracy conservatives and the Christian right), it is even tempting to doubt whether in some cases or some respects, depending on the actors at hand, that might not even be such a bad thing. At the very least, it might serve as a badly needed wake-up call and/or a reminder of some of the 20th century past.

Ill-advised and controversial comparisons with the old-time Italian fascists aside, and it would be at least a tiny bit ironic if Salvini came to power in Italy exactly 100 years after Mussolini became Prime Minister of Italy in 1922. (That is not suggesting that the former is anything like the latter.)

It would be even more ironic if putting Salvini on trial over his handling of migrant vessels ended up being his own “March on Rome” that might catapult him to the leadership of Italy.

By the way, the political consequences of the present coronavirus outbreak in Italy remain unknown but it is not impossible that even might play out in Salvini’s favor.

The far-right genie seems to be already well out of the bottle, and it is up for a lot of mischief. The ruling establishment elites of the West have somehow let it slip out. If it is possible, and it probably still is, getting it right back in the bottle will take a lot of resolve, integrity, and smarts.

Presenting Matteo Salvini with a tremendous publicity opportunity to emerge as the persecuted, martyred defender of Italy and Europe is hardly the product of any of those things.

Ivan Dikov


(Banner image: Photo shared by Matteo Salvini on Twitter)

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