An Italian butterfly is about to cause a hurricane in Brussels. When EU leaders gather in the European capital later this month, the reality of the right-wing populist government’s stance on key issues such as migration and the eurozone will finally hit home, reported Politico (Belgium). The major European powers have become used to containment maneuvers for the EU’s awkward squad on its periphery — such as Hungary and Poland. But with a populist coalition now at the helm in the EU’s soon-to-be third largest country, there seems little hope that the agenda on some of Europe’s most pressing dilemmas won’t be upended by their demands. The new man at the leaders’ table will be Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, but it is already clear that the real power lies with Interior Minister and far-right League leader Matteo Salvini (more so, it seems, than the leader of his 5Star coalition partner, Luigi Di Maio). It is he who gave the order to block Italy’s ports to the ship Aquarius that had set off from Libya carrying 629 migrants, including about 100 children. Conte was belatedly “informed” of the decision when he landed in Canada for the recent G7 meeting. “Conte has little autonomy, he suffers under Salvini who is much faster and unscrupulous,” said Stefano Stefanini, a former Italian ambassador. The diplomatic crisis over which European port would allow the ship to dock was just a foretaste of Salvini’s ambitions, though. “[He is] an agent of the crisis that follows Trump’s view of questioning the international order,” said Marco Damilano, a political analyst and editor of Italian weekly magazine L’Espresso. “Migration is perfect from this point of view: It’s where the EU is more fragile.” “For sure [at the European Council] we’ll not get bored,” Laura Ferrara, a 5Stars MEP, said jokingly, making clear her government will not sit back and go with the consensual flow. Deep Euroskepticism The depth of Euroskepticism in Italy’s populist government is hard to overstate. Although Brussels breathed a partial sigh of relief when Italy’s president refused to endorse Paolo Savona, an opponent of the euro currency and proponent of Brexit, as the country’s new finance minister, the government is peppered with figures who appear even more threatening to the EU order. Although Savona paid lip service to the euro Tuesday (he called it “essential”), he is not expected to be a friend to Brussels at the helm of Italy’s EU ministry. But his undersecretary, the League’s Luciano Barra Caracciolo, harbors perhaps even more hatred for Brussels. A lawyer and former visiting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, he published a post on a Euroskeptic website last year that was accompanied by an image on which an EU flag was pulled back to reveal a Nazi swastika. “To call him a Euroskeptic is almost a euphemism,” wrote the financial daily il Sole 24 Ore. The foreign ministry is now headed by Enzo Moavero Milanesi, an experienced Europhile who is well appreciated in Brussels. But his undersecretaries include the 5Stars’ Manlio Di Stefano, who wrote in 2015 about sanctions against the Kremlin as a “clumsy attempt to please [former U.S. president] Barack Obama.” Another undersecretary to watch is the League’s Guglielmo Picchi. He has worked in London as an investment banker and advocates not respecting the eurozone rule of keeping a government deficit below 3 percent of GDP. Picchi was also a key figure in the party’s efforts to build a relationship with Steve Bannon, the former Trump strategist who visited Rome at the time of the election. The new agriculture minister, Gian Marco Centinaio, has announced that Rome will not sign up to the new trade deal with Canada, CETA, because he argues it does not protect enough Italian products. It is not clear that Italy can actually scupper the deal, which was ratified by the European Parliament in February 2017, but it is an indication of just how far the Italian government’s priorities differ from its mainstream partners across the Continent. CETA, and trade policy in general, are a big target now for Salvini. In an interview on Sunday with newspaper Corriere della Sera, he accused CETA of “making legal Italian-sounding products, the forgery of Italian products,” and declared that “we are ready to block ships loaded with Asian rice” to protect Italian rice makers. Shifting alliances Back in Brussels, diplomats say the composition of the Home Affairs Council (a formation of the Council of the EU) is an appetizer for the shifting alliances brought about by Italy’s young government. Salvini has made common cause with Germany’s conservative interior minister, Horst Seehofer, as well as his counterpart in Austria, the far-right Interior Minister Herbert Kickl. Their presence strengthens the position of Central European countries like Hungary and Poland, which hitherto could be dismissed as isolated Euroskeptic troublemakers. One issue on which Italy’s new government plans to make its presence felt is Russia. Both parties in the coalition are pro-Kremlin and want an end to EU sanctions, but it’s an issue where they will most likely opt to keep their powder dry at this summit. 5Stars MEP Ferrara rules out Conte blocking a rollover of the sanctions this time around. But she hints it is a fight her government will save for another day. “Sanctions for us must be ended but it’s clear that we can’t have a breakup and veto them,” she said. It is on migration where Rome will want to have most impact at the European Council — particularly as it now seems almost impossible for European Council President Donald Tusk to find a compromise on reform of asylum rules ahead of the summit. “Member states want [migration reform] kept in their hands and not to leave him much space,” said an EU diplomat closely involved in the talks. Despite recent immigration data from the Italian interior ministry showing a 76 percent drop in arrivals in the first few months of the year, the country’s new allies have migration as a prime-mover in common, though they differ significantly over what to do about it. Rome is expected to put forward a proposal to reinforce external border controls, along with Vienna and possibly Berlin. Central European countries like Hungary will get behind such a “keep-them-out” approach, and likely also support another proposal announced by Foreign Minister Moavero in an interview on Sunday: Opening centers in Africa for asylum seekers to “make all [asylum claim] verifications before they start the journey.” But the convergence with Budapest ends there. Rome wants a mechanism for relocating refugees around the EU (something Budapest implacably opposes) and for other Mediterranean countries to open their ports to NGO rescue boats. “We talk to everyone,” Ferrara said, but “all ports of Mediterranean countries should be open,” a point so far rejected by Paris and Madrid. One man with the power to hold back the anti-EU impulse of much of the Italian government is President Sergio Mattarella. But paradoxically, the more EU countries attack Rome, the less space he has to maneuver, since he is then forced to defend the national interest and hence the government. Salvini so far has shrugged off the attacks and even boosted his party’s popularity in the process. The League is polling well above 25 percent, compared with the 17 percent it received in the March election. When Salvini was elected as head of the party five years ago, the League was polling at 4 percent. “We don’t want to make a comparison,” Italian journalist Stefano Folli wrote in La Repubblica, but “[fascist dictator Benito] Mussolini’s popularity was never so high as after the sanctions imposed [against Italy] because of the war in Ethiopia.” Salvini is no Mussolini, but the European leaders listening to his puppet prime minister around the European Council table later this month will be wondering what they can achieve with him at Italy’s helm.
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