Matteo Salvini, peacemaker (of sorts)
ROME — Matteo Salvini is ready for war over the Italian budget.
But Italys combative deputy prime minister says he wants peace on everything else, from sanctions on Russia to the eurozone, to Brexit.
In an interview in his office in the Viminale, the interior ministry headquarters in downtown Rome, Salvini held out several olive branches to Brussels, which has been the main target of his anger since he was elected leader of the far-right League in late 2013. The one exception is the Italian budget, which the European Commission rejected for breaking its deficit rules.
Whats at stake in the confrontation between Rome and Brussels — which started after the League, along with the 5Star Movement, began running the country in June — is, if everyone behaves in the same way, no less than the “end of the euro,” in the words of Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
Rome foresees a deficit for 2019 of 2.4 percent, far higher than the 1.6 percent which had been agreed with the Commission and is also considered unrealistic. On Thursday the Commission released its fall economic forecasts and said it expects the Italian deficit to reach 2.9 percent in 2019 and top 3 percent in 202o.
“The last five budgets applauded by Europe and the markets have increased the [public] debt by €300 billion and caused the Italian economy … to grow by just 0.9 percent” — Matteo Salvini
If Italy doesnt back down, the Commission may take action that could lead to fines (although things have never reached that stage with any eurozone country).
Salvini says hes not going to change a thing in the budget.
Asked if hes ready for a hard fight with Brussels, he said “Yes” — and then repeated the word for good measure.
The 45-year-old, who has taken his party from 4 percent support when he became leader five years ago to 17 percent in Marchs general election, to about 34 percent in the most recent polls (“for me thats too high,” he said), reckons its clear that austerity budgets dont work.
Salvini (center) touts a strong relationship with Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos (left), pictured along with Austrian Interior Minister Herbert Kickl | Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images
“The last five budgets applauded by Europe and the markets have increased the [public] debt by €300 billion and caused the Italian economy, according to estimates for next year, to grow by just 0.9 percent,” he said.
And a possible fine doesnt faze him one bit. “We have already many fines,” he said without making clear if Rome would pay up.
Nor does Salvini believe that the Commission would ever cut EU funding to Italy, as some diplomats have suggested. “Italy is one of the [EU] founding countries, Europes second manufacturing power, they cannot treat us like Luxembourg [also a founding EU member],” he said.
When not talking about the budget, Salvini was much softer in tone.
“Not everything that takes place in Brussels is negative,” he said, using as an example his relationship with Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos. “I have a good relationship, we exchange text messages, we talk, we cooperate and discuss, well do a mission in Africa together.”
“No, I dont want to break, I want to strengthen ties [with Europe]” — Matteo Salvini
He even said he approved of “some steps” taken by Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager in her fights with giants such as Google and Apple, although “theres still too much subjection towards multinationals.”
Salvini may have become a thorn in the EUs side but he said he wont always push things too far.
Sanctions on Russia, a country with which he has close ties, are “counterproductive and useless,” he said, adding that “well try to convince as many countries as possible of how useless they are.” However, he said that at the December EU summit, when leaders will decide whether to roll over the Russia sanctions, “no veto” will be used by Rome.
A similar approach is being taken on Brexit.
Salvini breaks from Western countries on Russia sanctions, with close ties to the country | Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images
In September he complained that “Brussels is not negotiating, they want to punish a government, a population, because it has not voted the way they wanted.” When asked if he wants to see flexibility in the negotiations, he replied “yes, because wars, sanctions … we have seen it, they dont take us anywhere.”
But he said he wont break with the EU line: “No, I dont want to break, I want to strengthen ties.”
On migration, another longstanding source of contention with Brussels, Salvini said hes open to having closed migration centers on Italian soil as a way to stop so-called secondary movements within Europe. “Were working on it,” he said, “its just curious that before they were reprimanding us because were locking them [migrants] up and they wanted us to let them stroll around, now they reprimand us because we let them stroll around.”
On the euro — which in his inauguration speech as party leader in 2013 he called “a crime against humanity” — Salvini now doesnt want to be seen as a threat.
He said he still believes the single currency “has been an experiment that was socially and economically wrong” but at the same time “we are not in government to leave [the eurozone], or to destroy it. We work with what we have, we stay in the EU and in the single currency system.”
His message for Brussels? “Despite what they say, we are not a scarecrow. From my point of view were the last safety net for Europe.”