Europeans can breathe easy for the first time in several years: Italy, one of the leading economies of the continent, will no longer be a nightmare of government officials and financiers, it will not provoke crises and strife and undermine European unity, which is already flimsy after the Brexit vote. Matteo Salvini is no longer in power. And he will not be in the near future.
A few weeks ago, it might have seemed that events would develop completely differently. It seemed that Salvini will withdraw his Lega Nord party from the 5 Stars Movement coalition, provoke early elections, and certainly win them – and then begin what the former Minister of Internal Affairs of Italy promised his supporters and well-wishers, but could not fulfill because of the opposition from his party’s coalition partners.
And since Vladimir Putin is the wealthiest of Matteo Salvini’s well-wishers, one of the clear consequences of the formation of the Lega Nord-led government with other Italian fans of the Kremlin led by unfading Silvio Berlusconi could be the lifting of sanctions against Russia.
They may say that European leaders would strive toward this goal even without Salvini, and there will be a considerable share of truth in this. But European leaders, as you might know, concern themselves with the cleanliness of their outer garments. And therefore, they really want someone else to do the dirty work for them. If Salvini, who received financing from Moscow, is favors lifting the sanctions, they would support him while shrugging in dismay. But not any Macron will do the dirty work they expect a Salvini to do, to play his role of the “bad guy” on the Kremlin’s payroll. So there is a slight confusion accompanying this obvious relief – because no other “bad guy” is yet visible on the horizon, who will allow Macron and others to keep their garments white and without stains.
In fact, it’s not only and not so much Salvini who lost in Italy. In fact, it was Putin. The Kremlin has long relied on Italian right-wing populists, quite logically hoping that the will of a country like Italy cannot be compared with the poorly concealed sympathies of Hungary or Greece in the power halls of the EU. If Lega Nord came to power in Italy, it would be possible to put an end to the EU sanctions policy even without formal concessions from Moscow. It’d be done in a similar way as with allowing the return of the Russian delegation to PACE – only with a much more significant political result. That’s why Putin supported Salvini, and Salvini helped Putin as best he could, including on the issue of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, from which even pro-Kremlin Western politicians usually squeamishly turn away as if from a bad smell.
But Salvini never turned away. He breathed in the bad smell deeply. He thought that the stronger this life-giving smell, the more chances he had to become Italian Prime Minister. But he was beaten – even Putin’s support did not help. The populists from the 5 Stars Movement were not as idiotic as he thought. And the Democrats were not as idealistic as he expected. Everyone came together. Yes, this is a very strange marriage. But any Italian political marriage is strange. And the previous one, when the left and right populists merged in ecstasy, was even stranger than the current union. The main difference between this marriage and the previous one is that this one demonstrates that the Europeans in general – and Italians in particular – have not yet completely abandoned a sense of self-preservation. They still can stop potential destroyers of Europe on their rise. They still can ruin Putin’s calculations.
And in modern times, this is already a very big achievement.