Now, Salvini, 46, is Italy’s nationalist in chief, a deputy prime minister in a populist coalition government and the most powerful politician in his country. His far-right party is known simply as the League; Salvini dispensed with diatribes against poor southern Italian peasants in favor of a more vehement rejection of immigrants, Muslims, and other unwanted minorities. In doing so, the League has become the most influential right-wing party in the country, cannibalizing support from the traditional center-right.
Like President Trump and ultranationalists elsewhere, Salvini promises to put “Italians first.” And he marshals local resentment toward the policies of the European Union, railing against its cosmopolitan bureaucrats and what he calls rapacious bankers. This week, he roiled financial markets after suggesting that heavily indebted Rome would be willing to break E.U. budgetary rules that cap how much public debt member states can accrue.
“Europe makes sense if it acknowledges different cultures and identities,” Salvini said at a recent rally. “The E.U. cannot only be based on finance and business. That is not a dream, that is a nightmare.”
In a week’s time, Salvini may make the nightmare all too real for the European establishment. His party and a constellation of other far-right and Euroskeptic parties stand to make significant gains in European parliamentary elections. One estimate suggests far-right and anti-establishment factions could win as much as 35 percent of the vote, rivaling the major center-right and center-left blocs on the continent. But they may struggle for greater cohesion — though they share an aversion to immigration, nationalist and populist parties from different parts of Europe don’t always see eye-to-eye on major matters of continental policy, including public spending.
But Salvini has positioned himself as the standard-bearer of Europe’s far right and is aiming to stitch together an expanded far-right bloc that could wholly subvert the E.U.'s parliamentary processes. He already has two leading European far-right parties — France’s National Rally and the Alternative for Germany — under his banner.
Far from seeking an exit from the European Union, the continent’s far right, led by figures such as Salvini, believes that a greater reckoning is on hand.
“Most of these far-right populist parties have understood that telling people they would leave the E.U. and the euro is scary,” Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on the extreme right at the Fondation Jean Jaurès think tank in Paris, told France 24. “And the example of Brexit adds to this: The British know what they want to get out of, but they have no idea where they’re going. So maybe the populists haven’t changed their minds, but they have certainly changed their discourse — from wanting to leave the E.U. to wanting to overhaul it from the inside.”
“He leads a large country. Europe can sanction a little country like Hungary,” Orban said. “It wouldn’t dare go after a country like Italy, with 60 million people. Moreover, Italy has a powerful voice. It is standing firm against the migrants — manning the front line.”
In Budapest this month, Salvini traveled with Orban to Hungary’s fenced border and issued a warning that Orban’s and his opponents to the left were too permissive about immigration. “For our children, to leave behind an Islamic caliphate with sharia law in our cities, is not something I want to do and I’m going to do everything in my power to avert this sad ending for Europe,” he said.
But Salvini’s real game is closer to home. In the European elections, the League will be competing against the party that is its coalition partner in Rome, the populist Five Star Movement. Though the latter came into power with the biggest vote share, its star has waned as Salvini’s and the League’s has risen. As the populist coalition struggles to enact the national reforms its parties promised on the campaign trail, the jockeying between the two camps is growing more intense.
“With its more straightforward law and order and anti-immigration message, the League has largely monopolized media attention and public debate — overshadowing the Five Star Movement,” Italian analyst Emiliano Alessandri said. “The party has attracted a growing number of voters who believe that Italy needs straight talk and tightfisted policies rather than solidarity and political correctness . . . A skillful politician that has never ceased campaigning in the streets and on social media, Salvini has become Italy’s leader, for now largely eclipsing all others, in particular Five Star Movement head Luigi Di Maio.”
Salvini “is using the vote for domestic purposes,” Daniele Albertazzi, a political scientist at the University of Birmingham, said to the Financial Times last month. “He wants to establish his narrative that Italy is at the heart of antiglobalist and anti-EU discourse, and that people have to look to him for leadership. That is more important to him than what actually happens in [the] European Parliament.”