Updated: Apr 8
As the de facto leader of Europe's anti-mass-migration movement, Matteo Salvini's departure from government may set back efforts to slow illegal immigration to the continent. Many analysts, however, believe that Salvini, who continues to lead his rivals in opinion polls, will be back in government soon and in an even stronger position than before.
On August 8, after months of public feuding, Salvini declared the governing coalition between his League party and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) unworkable. He accused M5S of blocking the League's main policies and said that the only way forward was to hold fresh elections.
The League and M5S, ahead of an inconclusive election in March 2018, had been political adversaries. Three months later, however, they formed an unlikely alliance. Their June 2018 coalition agreement, outlined in a 39-page action plan, promised to crack down on illegal immigration and to deport up to 500,000 undocumented migrants.
Since then, Salvini has accused M5S of failing to implement parts of the coalition agreement. Tensions came to a head on August 7, when, during a session in Parliament, M5S voted against a project supported by Salvini for a high-speed train link with France.
"It is useless to go ahead with 'no's' and quarrels," Salvini wrote on his Facebook page. "Italians need certainty and a government that works, not a Mr. 'No.'" Salvini called for new elections to be held on October 13.
In an effort to avoid early elections, which polls show that Salvini would win, M5S reached out to the rival center-left Democratic Party (PD), cutting Salvini's League party out of power.
M5S and PD clinched a preliminary coalition agreement on August 28, and a day later Italian President Sergio Mattarella asked Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, an independent, to form a new coalition government. Although the League is Italy's most popular party, M5S and PD are the two largest forces in parliament.
Although the anti-establishment, anti-EU M5S and the pro-establishment, pro-EU PD have long been political enemies, M5S appears to have set aside many of its core principles to meet PD's demands.
For now, M5S has insisted on maintaining a hardline anti-illegal immigration law passed with the League in November 2018. The law, championed by Salvini, saw public support for the League skyrocket from 17% in the March 2018 election to 38% in August 2019.
The new government - which aims to govern until the next general election, due to be held no later than May 2023 - will have to be approved in a vote of confidence by both houses of Parliament.
The new governing alliance, if realized, may be short lived. In an interview with the Italian daily La Stampa, former Interior Minister Roberto Maroni of the Lega Nord party said that the new government, if it comes to fruition, will be "intrinsically weak" because it would exist, "not for a shared political project but only to avoid elections."
He added that there was a possibility that the new government could last for the entire legislature "in order to avoid delivering the country to Salvini."
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Several Italian newspapers reported on efforts by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European officials to prevent early elections in Italy - solely to stop Salvini from becoming prime minister.
Merkel reportedly ordered leaders of the PD to reach a coalition agreement with M5S.
"Make the agreement and stop Salvini," she [Chancellor Merkel] reportedly said.
A leaked document showed that outgoing EU Budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger had offered to relax EU rules on public debt in exchange for "a pro-European government that does not work against Europe."
Salvini's political rivals relished his departure from government. Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, in a Facebook post, proclaimed: "Today, Salvini has left the political stage. Institutions 1 — Populism 0."
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán thanked Salvini for his efforts "benefitting Italy and the whole of Europe including Hungary." In a letter published by the Hungarian news agency MTI, Orbán wrote:
"We Hungarians will never forget that you were the first Western European leader to make an effort to prevent illegal migrants from flooding Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. Irrespective of future political developments in Italy and of the fact that we belong to different European party groups, we consider you as a brother in arms in the fight to preserve Europe's Christian heritage and stop migration."
On August 30, meanwhile, 62 Pakistani migrants landed on an island off Gallipoli in southern Italy. On September 1, Salvini, who remains acting interior minister, banned the Alan Kurdi, a ship operated by the German charity Sea-Eye, with 13 migrants aboard, from entering Italian waters.
Another ship, the Mare Jonio, is anchored a kilometer from the Italy's southernmost island of Lampedusa with 34 migrants who were rescued on August 28 off the coast of Libya.
Salvini has warned that the new coalition would end his ban on migrant boats arriving from Africa: "If the PD wants to reopen the doors and allow the business of illegal immigration to start up again, it should tell that to Italians."