When a xenophobic party succeeds electorally in one European country, it has a knock-on effect for all Europeans because immigration, asylum and integration policies are shaped at the EU level.
Those of us seeking just and humane race and immigration policies in the UK should be fearful of the knock-on effects of the Italian March 2008 general election, which secured a decisive victory for Silvio Berlusconi’s Party of Freedom Alliance. Already, the anti-immigrant Northern League, which more than doubled its share of the vote (8 per cent, leading to forty-seven seats in the Chamber of Deputies and twenty-three in the Senate) has upped the ante, calling for deportation of foreigners and the formation of self-defence groups to fight ‘immigrant’ crime.
Kingmaker of Italian politics
The Northern League, led by the xenophobic populist Umberto Bossi, brought down a previous Berlusconi administration in 1996. It is once again the kingmaker in Italian politics, for, if it withdraws its support, the prime minister will lose his majority in both chambers. Hence, Berlusconi – the richest man in Italy and owner of all bar two of the commercial TV channels – has already hinted that the League will be given at least two cabinet positions. And in a further wink to the Northern League, Berlusconi has promised to set up camps for jobless foreigners, describing ‘illegal immigrants’ as constituting an ‘army of evil’. Although Berlusconi’s alliance includes the post-fascist Alleanza National (AN), led by Gianfranco Fini and Alessandra Mussolini, the torchbearer of Italian fascism today, according to Enrico Pugliese of the Institute of Social Politics, is the Northern League. It is the League ‘that has absorbed a great part of fascist thinking, especially the racism’, he told Reuters.
The search for scapegoats
Pugliese is right. The Northern League, which represents the rich areas of northern Italy where the economy is fuelled by migrant labour, has grown in strength because of its frequent outbursts of racism, its encouragement of vigilante groups to fight foreigners who commit crimes, its introduction of discriminatory measures against foreigners in the towns it controls and, interestingly, for a so-called law and order party, its occasional forays into lawlessness and incitement. One of the first targets of Bossi’s lawless rhetoric was African migrants and asylum seekers.
African boat people, escaping conditions brought about by war and economic devastation, set out for Europe on desperate, dangerous and epic journeys across the desert and the Mediterranean Sea. Bossi does not believe that their treatment should be governed by international law or the basic standards of a civilised country. In June 2003, in an interview with the Corriere della Sera he declared that ‘There are two ways to apply the law [to combat illegal immigration] approved a year ago. Either our ships will tackle the illegal migrants’ vessels and take on board only the women and children, or else we write down in black and white that force will be used, and that is the way I want it. After the second or third warning, boom … the cannon roars. The cannon that blows everyone out of the water.’
One might ask whether a man who incites violence in this way is fit to stand for public office. But, unabashed, he and the League recently turned their fire on the Roma. In October 2007, following the arrest of a Roma suspect of Romanian origin for rape and murder, the League (and the Alleanza Nationale) spearheaded a campaign for the introduction of an emergency decree which would collectively punish (through mass deportations) all Romanians for the individual crime of one Roma suspect. It also announced that it would organise vigilante patrols in the predominantly immigrant areas of Turin and Piacenza. (Few recalled that in July 2007, criminal proceedings were launched against the League’s leader on Opera town council, near Milan, and eight other people, for inciting violence against Roma prior to an arson attack on a Roma encampment in December 2006.)
Following the March 2008 general election, Roberto Maroni (tipped as a future interior minister) applauded the idea of citizens’ defence groups to help prevent crime while brushing off concerns about them taking the law into their own hands. ‘These are details which are secondary to people’s lives’, he told Corriere della Sera.
Another target for the Northern League is Italy’s vulnerable Muslim community. Every time the Muslim community seeks to open a new mosque, the Northern League opposes. One of the most distasteful initiatives occurred in 2007 when the League’s Roberto Calderoli, boisterous after his successful campaign against the Bologna mosque, suggested a ‘pig day’ against new mosques across Italy. The idea was that a pig should be taken to any land where Muslims proposed to construct a mosque. ‘We will walk up and down on the land where they want to build, after which it will be considered “infected” and no longer suitable’, he said.
Calderoli, then a minister in the Berlusconi administration, had already achieved notoriety after a televised incident at the height of the Danish ‘cartoons affairs’, when he ripped off his shirt on live television, revealing a T-shirt printed with one of the drawings of the Prophet Mohammed. Violent demonstrations in Libya followed Calderoli’s prank, the Italian consulate in Benghazi was attacked and fifteen people were killed when the police opened fire. Calderoli subsequently resigned his ministerial post. He is now tipped to be the next deputy prime minister of Italy.