ANDREW ADONIS: Beware Europe’s populist putsch
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Brexit can be stopped - and Salvini provides yet another reason why it should be.
'It is better to live one day as a lion than a thousand years as a sheep,' was a Mussolini catchphrase. By lion he meant the full works: roar, teeth, hunting, killing, aggressive war.
There wasn't much compassion for the sheep, who happened to be most of his compatriots and the rest of Europe, Nazi Germany and Hitler's allies partially excepted.
This is no historical curiosity. A restaurant in Bagni Di Lucca, a beautiful Tuscan town, which many Italy lovers will know, has these words in a 1930s plaque on the wall. A nearby shop has a picture, discretely positioned but not hidden, of the owner's grandfather with Mussolini and his wife Rachele, who lived until 1979 and ran a pasta restaurant into old age. All smiles.
Mussolini remains an acceptable face of Italian extreme nationalism. His latest imitator is no pariah on the fringes of Italian politics but the de facto prime minister of the country, leader of a party now commanding a third of the vote in the latest polls.
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Matteo Salvini looks like Mussolini. He struts like Mussolini and does Mussolini stunts, like swimming in the pool of a tax dodger's dramatically sequestered mansion, cameras in tow. He too has taken to using the dictator's slogans – tweeting 'tanti nemici, tanto onore' ('so many enemies, so much honour'), on the anniversary of Mussolini's birth. This was in response to a magazine article about his critics on the left and in the Catholic church.
Salvini has just accomplished his own March on Rome. His party, the League, used to be the Northern League, a separatist regional party of the rich north of Italy in revolt against the poor south, which it saw as over subsidised and corrupt.
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Now, in league with the other populist Italian party, Five Star, Salvini has at least temporarily conquered the Italian state. In this March's general election they marginalised not only the Italian centre and left but also Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia right wing grouping.
An astute student of power, Salvini – Il Capitano to his followers (heard something like that before?) – took the Interior Ministry in the resulting coalition set up with Five Star, under a weak professorial prime minister.
In just two months of office, Il Capitano has marginalised the scatter-gun and disorganised Five Star leader Luigi di Maio, establishing himself as a national, and no longer merely regional, leader. If the polls are right, he has already doubled his national support. Surprise, surprise, he is angling for new elections.
This has been accomplished not merely by Mussolini rhetoric. The lion's roar is accompanied by the teeth. The sheep are immigrants and refugees. Legislation is in train victimising them and withdrawing benefits. Refugee boats are being turned away. To sink.
And surprise surprise, Salvini is running against 'Brussels' – as seen with his seizing of the Genoa bridge tragedy to question whether EU budget restraints should be respected. Like his friend Nigel Farage, he is also a former MEP who turned anti-Brussels rhetoric and stunts into a way of life. He has taken to complimenting Theresa May on Brexit as well as lauding Orban, Trump and Putin as fellow populists.
For Italy, this is deeply alarming, maybe revolutionary, in a visibly crumbling country with barely any growth for 20 years and deep and bitter discontent. For Europe it is almost as bad. It yet further makes the case against Brexit and a British abdication from Europe which could end up handing the continent to Salvini and his allies.
For the big mistake is to think that Salvini wants an Italian departure from the European Union. Like Orban, he doesn't want to break up the EU. He wants to take it over.
Salvini and Orban want to rob the German bank. If in the process they can create a populist EU, all the better. They haven't quite worked out how this might work, but what the hell? Populism is the supreme art of political improvisation. (I just coined that one; but it could have been Benito.)
They might just conceivably pull it off. Everything depends on France, Germany – and Britain. If Macron or Merkel were to be succeeded by far right populists, which is not fanciful, the worst could happen.
The worst is happening in Britain. But Brexit can be stopped, and Salvini is yet another reason why it should be. It is time to take inspiration from Churchill, who rightly argued with Chamberlain that Czechoslovakia – and by implication Italy and Hungary – were not 'faraway' countries 'of which we know nothing'. We can and must rise to the level of today's European crisis and help lead our continent to a better future.
Oh, and Mussolini and his lion and sheep. They were tweeted by someone else relatively recently...
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