Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and interior minister, is one of the most controversial politicians in Europe. The 45-year old chief of the League party exudes a down-to-earth demeanour with his common-man social media posts, in which he shares pictures of himself eating Barilla pasta and Nutella. To his many opponents, Salvini is a thick-headed, semi-fascist ideologue who wants to turn back the clock and return Europe to a dangerous form of nationalism. But to his supporters, in and out of Italy, he is a straight-talking, no-nonsense defender of his country's sovereignty against the northern elites in Berlin and Brussels.
However Salvini is seen, one thing is beyond dispute: migration levels from Africa to Europe have reduced considerably due to his policies. The number of illegal border crossings into Europe in 2018 was at its lowest level in five years, according to the European Union's border agency, Frontex. The Libya-to-Italy corridor across the Mediterranean Sea – what migration officials refer to as the central Mediterranean route – saw an 80 per cent decrease in the flow of people between 2017 and 2018. Departures from Libya, that until recently served as the main jumping-off point for African migrants seeking to travel to Europe, plummeted by 87 per cent; the figure for those travelling to Europe from Algeria fell by about half.
Unfortunately for the Spanish government of socialist prime minister Pedro Sanchez, the restrictions Rome has imposed have meant more migrants on their shores. With the central Med route closed, migrants are trying their luck further to the west: Spain is now the primary destination for those in sub-Saharan Africa hoping to enter Europe to start a new life. In October 2018, the International Organisation for Migration found that the number of migrants arriving on Spanish shores during the first nine months of the year were greater than the totals for 2015, 2016, and 2017 combined. This surge in arrivals is inevitably putting pressure on migration centres in Spain – and the longer this persists, the more opportunity Spain’s own right-wing populists will have to use it to their political advantage.
Matteo Salvini, however, is an Italian-firster at heart; he doesn’t particularly care about Spain, nor is he interested in helping a front-line state cope with the influx. In Salvini’s mind, Italy was the doormat for Europe’s migration crisis for years and nobody came to its aid at a time of need. Why, he asks, should Italy return a favour that it was never granted in the first place? This is the type of logic that makes humanitarians and NGOs hold Salvini in disdain, even if it has proven to be fuel for his poll numbers.
Much of this bad press for Salvini is deserved: he is a politician who, after all, thrives on demonising the outsider. It used to be southern Italians. He was once recorded in a video singing: “Can you smell the stench? Even the dogs are fleeing. The Neapolitans are coming.” When he then realised the importance of voters in his country's south, he changed tack. His favourite target over the last few years has been migrants, a community he has likened to “new slaves” or vagrants intent on committing crimes or taking advantage of the Italian people’s goodwill. Salvini is also no fan of the Brussels establishment: he has suggested Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the EU commission, is a drunken fool whose policies are ruining Europe.
In a similar way to Donald Trump, Salvini is a politically incorrect politician who has a gift for attracting publicity for himself, mostly by courting divisiveness. But although Salvini's fiery rhetoric has won him few friends in Brussels, he has actually, in an odd way, made the European Union’s migration issues easier to handle. The German government, for instance, is predicting a drop in asylum applications from about 198,000 in 2017 to 166,000 in 2018. It stands to reason that at least some of this drop can be attributed to Italy’s anti-migration platform, one where rescue ships are no longer welcome to dock at Italian ports.
Call him what you want: stubborn, xenophobic, outlandish, borderline authoritarian. Regardless, Salvini is meeting his campaign promise of lower rates of immigration.