You can see how things stand in Italy as we get closer to election day from the surreal and cringeworthy debate that took place Tuesday for hours on end regarding the Nazi attack in Macerata. It was a thoroughly ignoble spectacle in which each tried to pin on their political opponents the responsibility for what Silvio Berlusconi—worse than even far-right Matteo Salvini—called the “social time bomb” of immigration.
In the background of all this were the warnings, which in our current corrupt climate might as well be coming from an alien planet: those from Brussels, from the Italian president and from the bishops. What happened in Macerata was “a willful attack on our most fundamental values” and “an attempt to destroy the very fabric of what binds us together as Europeans,” said Frans Timmermans, the vice president of the EU Commission.
It was an irreproachable statement. But it would have been even better if he had added a passage on the Dublin Treaty, which Europe is holding inviolable and which is contributing to the tearing of “the fabric” in Italy. President Sergio Mattarella alluded to this when he noted that “Italy needs to feel that it is a community, without distrust. The lack of meaningful community leads to distrust, intolerance and sometimes violence.”
Gualtiero Bassetti, the president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, had no use for allusions in his straightforward statement: “We must promote inclusion: ‘no’ to the entrepreneurs of fear.” Together with Pietro Grasso, the leader of Liberi e Uguali, who said that “those who sow hatred reap violence,” they were the only ones who stood apart from the consensus of the others, who seemed to start from an identical assumption: that the “invasion” is really here, and that we have to deal with it. The only disagreement was, therefore, about who could do it better, and who could do it with the heaviest hand of all.
On the latter question, Berlusconi took home the laurels. He did express disagreement with Salvini’s comments, but only insofar as his ally accused the Left of having blood on their hands. “The Knight” put a damper on that claim: “about the Left, [Salvini] sometimes speaks in an immoderate tone.” But regarding the “social time bomb,” the two are in perfect agreement, and the “moderate” from Arcore even manages to outdo his raving colleague. He is proposing an explosion in deportations: of 600,000 illegal immigrants. He wants the police in every neighborhood. He is inviting citizens to report the undocumented to authorities—perhaps the most odious of all the groundbreaking ideas of the leader of Forza Italia.
Salvini, in turn, could hardly contain his excitement, and although he made a point of claiming that he was the originator of the proposal for mass deportations, “he didn’t begrudge” Berlusconi using it, and further drummed up what will be their common slogan: “More deportations that landings.” And what about Luca Traini, the gunman with a copy of Mein Kampf in his room? According to Berlusconi, he is just “a crazy person.”
Berlusconi’s rightward lurch is so sudden and abrupt as to require some explanation. As usual, we must go back to that most sacred oracle: the polls. Those commissioned by the leader of Forza Italia are saying that the center-right coalition is still far from a parliamentary majority, and that the issue he can use to push the numbers higher is the defense of the fatherland against “the invasion.” The polls (not only the public ones, but also private polls run in Macerata itself) are assuring him Italians don’t think the outgoing government was tough enough on this issue—Interior Minister Marco Minniti notwithstanding—and they think a strongman is needed. Before they find that strongman in his frenemy Salvini, or, even worse, in Luigi Di Maio, Berlusconi is keen to take up that lucrative role himself.
However, Salvini isn’t bothered by this at all. He knows perfectly well that his ally’s rightward turn will tie him up in knots far more than Giorgia Meloni’s “rally against backroom deals” would have, which the Forza Italia leader refused to attend, as he remains with one foot firmly planted in the soil of a possible grand coalition. It is obvious that even for a man of his proverbial outrageousness, one can only push it so far.
Competition on the right flank was only to be expected. Less so were Democratic Party leader Matteo Renzi’s accusations. He didn’t feel the need to distance himself from the “social time bomb” comments and the proposals for mass deportations, but was keen to point out that Strongman Silvio was in fact the one responsible for the alleged disaster: “With the Dublin treaty, each country manages its immigration situation alone, but those treaties were signed by Berlusconi. If migrants are arriving in Italy, it is because of the war in Libya, and Berlusconi was the prime minister back then.”
The same argument was trotted out by Di Maio, but he also added the Democratic Party to the list of the guilty. The Knight is nothing short of “a traitor to the fatherland,” and the center-left is not far behind. “Berlusconi is responsible for the social bomb,” the 5 Star Movement candidate vituperated. “Immigration is out of control because of him and the center-left. Together, they signed shameful treaties and bombed Libya.”
Being from the 5 Star Movement, he could not resist alluding to vile profiteering—according to him, profit was the reason why the gates were opened to the invading army: “Immigration is a business, and they have engaged in speculation.”
This is a key turning point in the campaign for the March elections. Before, almost all the participants had tried, each for their own reasons, to exorcise from the debate the one theme that has been the key factor at the polls throughout Europe. After Macerata, it is no longer possible to keep the topic of immigration away from the discussion—and we see the worst impulses arising from the depths of our politics, all at once.