ROME - Like prizefighters slugging it out this week, Italy’s populist leader Matteo Salvini clashed with French President Emmanuel Macron.
The immediate cause for the bout was Salvini’s closing of Italian ports to humanitarian rescue ships carrying migrants from Africa.
Few doubt, though, the cosmopolitan French leader and the iconoclastic Italian nationalist, who is the interior minister in Italy’s new coalition government and its driving force, will clash time and again in the coming months in a prolonged contest to shape the future of the European Union.
Both men defied naysayers and flouted conventional political norms to get where they are: Macron created a centrist political movement, Salvini transformed the regional far-right Northern League into a nationwide insurgency.
But they represent conflicting visions of Europe and are being seen as the key champions in a struggle for mastery between centrism and nationalist populism.
Their first-round clash this week was sparked when Salvini banned NGO ships carrying migrants, mostly African, rescued from the waters off Libya to dock in Italian ports, part of his hardline policy, popular in Italy, to curb new arrivals. Salvini also plans to deport more than 500,000 illegal migrants.
In the past five years Italy has taken in more than 640,000 mainly African migrants and says its EU partners must ease the burden.
France reprimanded Italy for closing the ports, focusing on the stranding at sea of an NGO ship carrying 629 migrants picked up in the Mediterranean, arguing it breached the rules agreed by EU member states.
Macron scolded the Italian government for “cynicism and irresponsibility,” triggering a tit-for-tat trading of insults with Salvini, with other ministers on both sides piling on.
“Saving lives is a duty, turning Italy into a huge refugee camp is not,” insisted Salvini. Instead he urged Malta to receive the migrants and suggested France could take them.
A spokesman for Macron’s party La Republique en Marche shot back, “The position, the line of the Italian government, makes you want to vomit. It is inadmissible to use human lives for petty politics.”
Salvini retorted in the increasingly ill-tempered dispute that Italy had “nothing to learn from anyone about generosity, voluntarism, welcoming and solidarity” and demanded a formal apology. Italy summoned the French ambassador to protest the French reprimand and cancelled a planned meeting between the Italian economy minister and his counterpart in Paris. It also threatened at one point to postpone a scheduled meeting Friday between Macron and the new Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte.
A “spat” was how many European newspapers described the clash, but it has widened the most dangerous fault-line in European politics over how to share the burden between EU member states for migrants from conflict zones and poor countries trying to enter the bloc or and whether they should be welcomed at all, while exposing divisions over the rights and prerogatives of nation states.
The populist governments of Hungary and Austria leapt to Salvini’s defense. Salvini told Italian lawmakers he is open to a possible “axis” with Germany and Austria, before an EU summit this month that will consider possible changes to asylum law.
Macron has pitched himself as the antidote to the “illiberal democracies” of Central Europe and the defender of the European Union threatened by populist-nationalists like Salvini. The French leader wants to reform and revive the bloc by increasing the political and economic integration of Europe.
The 44-year-old Salvini wants the opposite, not only a brake on further integration, but a reversal with the bloc being a looser grouping of nation states not ordered around by Brussels or too hedged by EU treaties.
Both embrace opportunism and are nimble. According to Davide Vampa, an expert in Italian politics at Britain’s Aston University, Salvini, nicknamed by supporters Il Capitano (the captain), has borrowed much from other populist leaders.
His language is direct and often guttural. “È finita la pacchia per i clandestini, preparatevi a fare le valige” (Illegals, the gravy train is finished, pack your bags), he announced earlier this month.
A graduate of France’s elite institutions Sciences Po and École nationale d’administration and a former Rothschild investment banker, Macron is more intellectual. “In the face of authoritarianism,” Macron told the European Parliament in Strasbourg in April, “the response is not authoritarian democracy, but the authority of democracy.”