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‘Italy has done a lot — maybe too much’

Italy's Interior Minister and deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini holds a press conference in Moscow on Monday. (Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty Images)

In March, Italian voters threw out the center-left parties that had governed Italy for five years and brought to power a populist coalition between the left-leaning Five Star Movement and the right-wing League party, formerly the Northern League. Matteo Salvini , head of the League, has become the leading figure in Italy’s government, although he is the deputy prime minister and interior minister. His coalition partner, Luigi Di Maio, leader of the Five Star Movement, has more members in parliament, but Salvini’s tough talk on stopping migrants from reaching Italy’s shores has made him far more popular. This past week in his office in Rome, Salvini sat down with The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth to share his views on immigration and other topics. Excerpts follow:

Q: How was your recent trip to Russia?

A: Very good. I met the interior minister [Vladimir Kolokoltsev], and we agreed on creating some common databases, just like we did with Israel. We talked about terrorism, cybersecurity, the fight against drug trafficking, and foreign fighters who are returning to Europe from Syria and the Middle East. Our secret-service agencies say that several thousand foreign fighters have returned to Europe — some of them to Italy. Every day, I sign orders to expel people who are linked to Islamic terrorism.

Q: It’s said that you’re the most powerful politician in this country. What do you represent that the old politicians did not?

A. We use a new language, and we use social media — involving many new young people.

Q. What is the new language?

A. A more direct one — simple, concrete.

Q. What is your message? No more immigrants?

A. Not only that. We are for pension reform, jobs, the flat tax and justice reforms.

Q. Recently, you had a dispute with Prime Minister [Giuseppe] Conte and Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio about unloading an Italian boat with immigrants from North Africa. You said it could not land, but Conte and Di Maio ordered the immigrants to be unloaded. Will they regret their position?

A. I am on the same page as Prime Minister Conte. Our tones are different, but we have the same position.

Q. But you said the boat could not land, and they said it must land.

A. There was a slight difference regarding the time of disembarkation.

Q. Do you feel that Italy has been unfairly treated by Europe and that your country is receiving too many immigrants?

A. Yes. We have received 654,000 migrants by sea over the last four years. Many received political asylum. Today we host 170,000 migrants in hotels waiting for processing.

Q. What should be done? Should other European countries take more migrants?

A. No. The final objective is not to distribute the migrants among various European countries, but to prevent them from entering Europe and from departing from Africa. We need to intervene in Africa. We need to have a Marshall Plan for Africa to improve living conditions in the countries of origin.

Q. The E.U. has put up some money to invest in certain African countries?

A. Yes, but Europe found 6 billion euros for Turkey and only 500 million euros for Africa. So our fight will be to spend more in Africa.

Q. Do you think that Italy is receiving an unfair and overwhelming share of refugees due to its proximity to northern Africa?

A. No, Europe has realized that Italy has done a lot — maybe too much. I explained to my French and German colleagues that we can’t take any more.

Q. Your immigration policy has been very popular with the people in Italy.

A. At the moment, yes, because we have almost 500,000 illegal migrants at the moment. There are 5 million legal migrants, and they account for almost 8 percent of the total population.

Q. What do you think of President Trump’s polices on immigration?

A. I went to a Trump rally in Pennsylvania during the campaign, and I appreciate his following through on what he promised voters, as he did with recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Q. Are you in favor of that?

A. Yes.

Q. What did you think of the recent meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin?

A. It was a very positive sign — a rapprochement between the U.S. and Russia is good news for Italy and for Europe.

Q. Your party has been accused of taking money from United Russia — Putin’s party.

A. This is fake news. We sued those who reported it. It is not true. We never took one euro, one ruble or one dollar.

Q. But the League party did have an agreement with United Russia.

A. Yes, it was a political agreement broadcast on the Web. The agreement involved collaboration between youth movements on cultural and economic themes, just as we have with other parties such as the National Front in France and the Freedom Party of Austria.

Q. Next year, there will be parliamentary elections in the E.U. Are you going to get together with other parties in Europe to try and form a majority in the E.U. parliament?

A. The next European elections will be fundamental. Europe has always been governed by an agreement between socialist and democratic parties. I want to bring together parties that will become a majority in the European parliament — parties from Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden, France, Germany, parties in each of the E.U. countries.

Q. What we would call populist parties?

A. “Populism” is a compliment to me. We envision a different Europe where every E.U. country should have the freedom to decide its own economic policies.

Q. Do you see Italy as part of Europe? Or would you like to pull Italy out of Europe?

A. We are working to change Europe from the inside.

Q. Not pull Italy out of the E.U.?

A. No, no. We are working to change economic, political, tax and agricultural policies.

Q. What E.U. rules would you change?

A. Some I would change immediately — for example, the directive on banks.

Q. There is a rule under the Maastricht Treaty limiting [budget deficits] to 3 percent of gross domestic product. Will you stick to it?

A. We are doing everything we can to respect that, but the 3 percent is not written in stone.

Q. Is there anything that would make you withdraw from the ruling coalition of which you are a part and go to elections? Reportedly, your party is rising in the polls, and you might emerge victorious.

A. I don’t do my job as minister based on polls.

Q. So the answer is no? Nothing would make you withdraw?

A. If the coalition respects the government’s rules, there is no danger. The objective is to govern well for a long time.

Q. People say that Prime Minister Conte has no power — that you and Luigi Di Maio have all the power.

A. No, Conte is the prime minister, and the last word is with him.

Q. If you do what you promised in the campaign, you will cut taxes and provide a basic income for people in the country. Experts worry this will greatly increase your deficit.

A. No.

Q. But the coalition contract calls for increased spending and also for cutting taxes. How do you do this without blowing up your deficit?

A. If the economy grows, then other things can be realized. Following the policies of the European Union these past few years has led to a record public debt in Italy. Italy is the second-to-last country [in Europe] for economic growth. So I intend to do something completely different.

Q. What is that?

A. The flat tax and an amnesty for those who owe taxes up to 100,000 euros to help them climb out of debt. We consider these to be small debts.

Q. In 2016, you said that “everyone who votes for us will know that a Northern League government would get rid of the euro and move back to a national currency.” Do you still believe this, or have you changed your mind?

A. No, I didn’t change my mind. I still think the euro was a wrong experiment. Since now it is here, we have to improve its conditions.

Q. So you don’t believe what you said previously about getting rid of the euro?

A. Have you ever changed your ideas?

Q. New York bankers and experts see Italy as a financial risk. They worry that this government doesn’t understand that Europe can’t afford to bail out Italy.

A. The Italian economy is safe. I have met almost all the CEOs of big banks — Italian and American. They are waiting for a fiscal reform and a justice reform before investing in Italy.

Q. And you will carry out the justice reform?

A. The most complicated thing will be the justice reform. Every attempt to reform the justice system — both from the left and right — has met problems. Many investors are afraid of the long lawsuits and trials involved in the Italian system.

Q. Why do you want to lift the sanctions on Russia?

A. Because they didn’t prove to be useful, and according to the data, they hurt Italian exports.

Q. You said that Russia had a right to annex Crimea?

A. There was a referendum.

Q. It was a fake referendum.

A. [That is your] point of view. . . . There was a referendum, and 90 percent of the people voted for the return of Crimea to the Russian Federation.

Q. What kind of referendum was it with Russian soldiers there?

A. Compare it to the fake revolution in Ukraine, which was a pseudo-revolution funded by foreign powers — similar to the Arab Spring revolutions. [Editor’s note: Independent fact-checkers have not found evidence for this claim, though it did spread widely after Russian news sources published it.] There are some historically Russian zones with Russian culture and traditions which legitimately belong to the Russian Federation.

Q. Do you support NATO?

A. Yes. We belong to the Atlantic alliance.

Q. Will you be prime minister one day?

A. I wouldn’t have imagined I would be the deputy prime minister, so I don’t know. The role of interior minister is very engaging, so at this moment, I am only thinking about this.

Q. What are your major challenges as minister of the interior?

A. I’ve been minister for only 47 days. Apart from migration issues, we are struggling against the Mafia and drug trafficking and other criminal organizations. The Mafia is everywhere.

Q. How powerful are they?

A. Very. We are fighting against them, trying to take away their money. They get money from drug and weapons trafficking. They also make money on illegal immigration.

Q. Neither Austria nor Germany wants immigrants. Aren’t these countries going to need immigrants to grow their economies? They have such low birth rates.

A. I don’t agree with such an idea.

Q. But you can’t have no workers.

A. If the economy grows, families will decide to have more children. We had the lowest birth rate in 150 years in Italy last year.

Q. But there are Germans and perhaps Italians who don’t want to do low-skilled jobs. Turkish immigrants perform a lot of jobs in Germany, for example.

A. The problem is the quality of the work. If a German person refuses to work for the wage that a Turkish person agrees to wash the floor for, then good for him. He should not accept those wages. In our contract with the Five Star, there is a minimum wage.

Q. Will you come to the U.S. soon?

A. Yes, but first, I have to go to the northern African countries.

Q. What do you want to achieve there?

A. In Libya, where I went 15 days ago, we’re working to normalize the situation. The objective is to have free elections. I met the special envoy from the United Nations who is working to convene all the factions to discuss the situation.

Q. Are you trying to get the E.U. to invest in some African countries [to prevent migrants from leaving their home countries]?

A. Yes. Niger, Chad, Mauritania: They are transit countries. Nigeria is also very important — 60,000 migrants from Nigeria came by sea.

Q. Is Italy going to invest? The E.U.?

A. The E.U. will invest. Italy can invest a little bit.

Q. Why are you picking on the Roma here in Italy?

A. In Italy, there are only 40,000 Roma living in camps.

Q. Why don’t you leave them alone?

A. They live in total lawlessness.

Q. Haven’t they been there a long time?

A. Yes, but if they are always stealing, I want that to stop.

Q. Are you going to expel the Roma?

A. Not the Italian ones. Some of them have Italian citizenship. It’s not an ethnic question. There’s a Roma camp in Milan near my house. They steal and burn everything.

Q. Is it true you have very stern views on social issues?

A. No — I am only against gay adoptions and surrogate births amongst gay couples. [The League party] voted against civil unions between homosexuals because this is a slippery slope to gay adoptions. Beyond that, anyone can do whatever they like.

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