President Trump did not deign to meet with him. Salvini harbored some hope in this regard, but not a lot: the protocol was set in stone, and the Italian Vice-Prime Minister met with the US Vice President, Mike Pence, and the Secretary of State, the foreign policy hawk Mike Pompeo. However, the lack of a face-to-face encounter with the occupant of the White House was the only sore spot in a mission that went exactly as Salvini planned and which marks the completion of a process of re-orientation which began many months ago.
His overt goal was to make Italy “the most steadfast and consistent ally of the US,” in contrast to “other European countries which have chosen a different path.” And also, one might add, in contrast to his allies in government, the Five Star Movement, which reject almost all the points on which Salvini and Pompeo are in perfect agreement. Or would reject them, if they only had the clout.
The Interior Minister was keen to highlight the list of issues on which he is in agreement with the US, giving the impression that he was taking up the role of Foreign Minister, or even of the Prime Minister himself. On Venezuela, the Lega leader said Italy “has already recognized Guaidó as president, and it would not do any good to support Maduro.” On Iran, he said “those who are saying they want to wipe Israel off the map cannot have normal relations, and Italy’s position has already changed.” On China and the New Silk Road, he said that “business is business, but security comes first, and we are working to check if there are any risks involving Huawei.” And as for Libya, “it shouldn’t be the case that there is a winner and a loser, while France thought that Haftar’s campaign would be decisive.”
On the issue of the order of F-35 fighter jets, regardless of what his government allies think, Salvini was clear: “Deals that were signed cannot be denounced.” At one point, the Lega Nord leader hinted at his closeness to Putin, a topic otherwise minimized in the name of the newfound alliance with Trump: “It would be a mistake to isolate Russia, abandoning it in the arms of China.” Of course, this formula—one acceptable to his American friend—shows that the snarling rabble-rouser knows how to moderate his tone when he wants to.
But Salvini didn’t fly across the Atlantic just to burnish his reputation as the sole ally of the United States within the EU, in essence repeating—only with a different outward style—the foreign policy of the Berlusconi governments. He was also looking for some leverage in the standoff with the EU, and it is no coincidence that he used the occasion of the Washington visit to put out a defiant statement: “The resources for the Flat Tax have to be there. At most, we can change the schedule. The EU has murdered people and thrown open the doors to China. Italy is not Greece, and Brussels will have to deal with it. The government of which I am a part will no longer be content with the crumbs from Europe’s table.” He invoked the US president as the model to follow: “Italy needs a Trumpian turn.”
Salvini knows that if we look at the overall picture, the only real difference with the past lies in the attitude of the United States, which has gone from supporting European unity to Trump’s offensive aimed at undermining it. Thus, he is calculating that if he summons the specter of a close alliance between the US—the powerful “ally” that wants the Union to disintegrate—and one of the founding members of the Union itself, this will be a powerful enough card to play against the EU, to soften its rigid stance, if not to abandon it.
After the rote statements of support for his government and reassurances that it will remain in office for four more years, the Lega leader also insisted that there is full agreement within the coalition regarding the letter to the European Commission that Conte has been “polishing up” for the past four or five days. However, there will be a summit of the top three figures in the government before the letter is actually sent, which will probably take place on Wednesday, before the cabinet meeting which is set for 8pm.
Conte and Salvini are not exactly seeing eye to eye, but there’s no doubt that they are playing the same game and have the same goal, with very different methods, but most likely with coordinated moves. The firebrand Lega leader is playing his part, namely that of the “bad cop.”
Conte, on the other hand, is soft spoken and diplomatic. He hastened to soften the Interior Minister’s remarks regarding China, and at the same time re-emphasized Italy’s unshakable “Euro-Atlantic” loyalties. But both of them want the same thing, something that Conte will ask for in his letter: a postponement of the pending infringement procedures regarding Italy’s fiscal policies.
Salvini’s remark about the possibility of “rearranging the timing for the Flat Tax” is a signal sent to Brussels regarding the Italians’ willingness to partially walk back their plans. The idea is to push the negotiations back so that they will have to take place at the same time as those for the new European leadership positions, ones in which Italy will be able to throw its weight around in exchange for a softer line on its fiscal policies. However, persuading the Commission to grant a postponement will not be an easy task.
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