The Washington Post spoke this week with Matteo Salvini, the head of Italy’s right-wing Northern League party, which has been one of the biggest forces in opposing proposed constitutional changes that will go to a referendum Sunday. The Northern League and another populist party, the Five Star Movement, have surged in the polls as Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi struggles. This interview has been edited for clarity.
The Washington Post: Why do you oppose the proposed reforms? Renzi says that a “no” vote is a vote for the status quo.
Matteo Salvini: In Italy we say: Tell me whom you go with and I’ll tell you who you are. Who supports “yes”? [German Finance Minister Wolfgang] Schäuble and the German government, [Jean-Claude] Juncker and the European Commission, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, banks and finance, [Sergio] Marchionne, Confindustria — the powers-that-be back the yes and Renzi, no doubt about that. That’s where the establishment is.
Q: If “no” wins Sunday, what’s your plan for Monday?
A: First of all, I’ll sleep for six hours. And then I’ll ask for elections as soon as possible, whatever electoral law is in place.
Q: Why are you against the changes? Technical issues? Or the politics?
A: Both. … First of all, I don’t understand why Italians should be bound to Brussels’s choices without being able to express themselves through a referendum. For example, if tomorrow morning Brussels should decide to let Turkey in, Italians wouldn’t be free to oppose it, neither in Parliament nor through a referendum. And we are a force fighting for autonomy, federalism. Italy has 8,000 municipalities. In this reform … everything gets centralized, and Rome, the central state, will have the last word on everything, including health care, ports, transports, energy, schools. If Rome gets to decide everything for the north and for the south, it’s not a good and just thing.
Q: Would you ever vote with the Five Star Movement?
A: On some issues [our] voters can have similar ideas. [But] on one particular issue we have very different positions: the question of migration and security — relations with Islam and civil rights. On this issue the Five Stars are more to the left than the [ruling] Democratic Party and there’s no chance for us to work together.
Q: How did Donald Trump’s victory affect the discussion in Italy?
A: Aside from my personal joy, that went to show that one can win against everyone, against the media, the economic system, the artists, the intellectuals, the singers and even against the lobbies within one’s own party. It’s a sign that the people can decide, that it can choose. This from a political perspective. Then there are concrete choices. Good relations with Russia are great news. Putting a stop to the [Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership] is great news. Defending American industry against the invasion of Chinese products. Renegotiating the role of NATO. And a similar approach on the issue of immigration. This is all great news.
Q: What kind of connections are you making with other right-wing parties elsewhere in Europe?
A: In Brussels we belong to a group that includes the [French anti-immigrant] National Front, [Austrian nationalist right-wing leader Heinz-Christian] Strache’s Freedom Party, [Dutch Euroskeptic Geert] Wilders’s Party for Freedom, the Romanians, the Poles, and we’re trying to form an alliance in order to change Europe. For instance, should Norbert Hofer win in Austria on Sunday, it would be more great news.
Q: What would be the message if you won?
A: In Italy there are two emergencies. This is what I hear, and this is what all the stats say. Employment and security.
Q: You’ve criticized Muslim immigration to Italy. Is there a place for Muslims in Italy?
A: In Italy there are 5 million legal migrants. They’re integrated, and they’re welcome. The problem of the Muslim presence is increasingly worrying. There are more and more clashes, more and more demands. And I doubt the compatibility of Italian law with Muslim law, because it’s not just a religion but a law. And problems can be seen in Great Britain as well as in Germany, so reassessing our coexistence is fundamental.
Q: What about the people already here? Would you remove them? Deport them?
A: No, that’s not what it’s all about. Statistics tell us that of the 500,000 people who arrived, those who are granted political asylum are more or less 10 percent. I mean those who are fleeing from war, from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, parts of Nigeria. Welcoming them, in all of these cases, is our duty. For illegals, though, expulsion is needed.
Q: So would Italian ships be sending them to Libya? What does that actually mean?
A: If I were the defense minister … I would say that they should save everyone, rescue everyone, treat everyone and then send them back. We need to push our border across the Mediterranean — hoping that Libya can find a new balance as soon as possible.
Q: That would be against international law.
A: Yes, it’s hard. We were doing that in the past when the interior minister came from the Northern League. So much so that Europe reprimanded us because of those expulsions. But one needs to set a limit.
Q: So would that mean Italian boats actually sailing to Libyan shores?
A: Well, recently our ships have come within 12 miles of the coast of Libya. We’re basically picking them up at home.
Q: Does Italy need a strongman as leader? You’ve given speeches wearing Benito Mussolini’s black shirt in the past.
A: [Laughs] History made that outdated. On the contrary, I’m a federalist. I believe in the Italy of municipalities, of the Renaissance, not in Mussolini’s centralization. We don’t need a strongman. But we need a strong country that is not subordinate to Europe. With its own currency, for example. … I don’t believe that either fascism or communism is the solution or that they may come back on this earth.
Q: If you were the prime minister, what would be your plan on membership in the euro and the European Union?
A: First of all we need to move past the euro. The euro is … a failed currency, a wrong currency, a failed experiment. So those who form an alliance with the league commit themselves to move past the euro, and to go back to a fairer currency. Regarding the European Union, our constitution unfortunately forbids us to hold a referendum. Italians cannot vote on international treaties. … But if we headed the government we would go to Brussels and we would ask to reread and rewrite all of the treaties: Maastricht, Schengen, Dublin, Lisbon. If that’s possible, we can start anew. Otherwise we get out.