Paris’ Macron, Rome’s Salvini: Glob­al­ism takes on na­tion­al­ism

The Asian Age - - Oped - Christo­pher Cald­well

The first sign that Mat­teo Salvini was des­tined to do bat­tle with Em­manuel Macron came in June, a few days af­ter he was named Italy’s in­te­rior min­is­ter. Salvini, whose party, the League, wants to cut im­mi­gra­tion dras­ti­cally, an­nounced that a Ger­man- reg­is­tered res­cue ship car­ry­ing 629 as­pir­ing mi­grants from Africa would not be al­lowed to dock in Si­cily.

Macron re­acted with dis­gust. “The pol­icy of the Ital­ian gov­ern­ment,” a spokesman for his po­lit­i­cal move­ment an­nounced, “is nau­se­at­ing.” Salvini re­sponded that if the French wanted to show their open- heart­ed­ness, they might make good on their un­ful­filled pledge to feed and shel­ter some of the 100,000 African mi­grants Italy had un­til re­cently been re­ceiv­ing each year.

Re­cently, what had seemed like a per­sonal an­tipa­thy be­tween the two men re­vealed it­self as an all­out bat­tle for Euro­pean hearts and minds.

Days ear­lier, Salvini had in­vited Hun­gar­ian Prime Min­is­ter Vik­tor Or­bán to Mi­lan to is­sue a man­i­festo. It was Or­bán who ex­horted Europe to harden its bor­ders dur­ing the great over­land mi­gra­tion from war- torn Syria and points east in 2015. Stand­ing un­der the awn­ing of a pizze­ria in Mi­lan, Or­bán sin­gled out Salvini as “my hero and my com­rade in destiny”. And he sin­gled out Macron as his neme­sis. “There are two camps in Europe,” Or­bán said, “and one is headed by Macron. He is at the head of the po­lit­i­cal forces sup­port­ing im­mi­gra­tion. On the other hand, we want to stop il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion.”

Or­bán is right. Salvini’s na­tion­al­ism and Macron’s glob­al­ism are the two com­pet­ing vi­sions of Europe’s fu­ture. A year ago, it ap­peared that the newly- elected French Pres­i­dent might in­herit An­gela Merkel’s man­tle as Europe’s uni­fier. He would give a new élan to a Euro­pean Union demoralised by Bri­tain’s threat­ened de­par­ture. It even seemed pos­si­ble that Don­ald Trump’s episodes of boor­ish­ness might dis­credit the cause of im­mi­gra­tion con­trol in Europe al­to­gether.

But vot­ers have not for­given their lead­ers’ open­ing of the im­mi­gra­tion flood­gates in 2015. Bor­der- de­fend­ing gov­ern­ments have come to power in Italy, Aus­tria and the Czech Repub­lic, and Trump’s quon­dam ad­viser Steve Bannon is now work­ing to fos­ter co­op­er­a­tion be­tween na­tion­al­ist move­ments, in­clud­ing Salvini’s, in the run- up to next May’s Euro­pean elec­tions. Much as pris­ons can be places where con­victs hone their crim­i­nal skills, the EU Par­lia­ment has be­come a clear­ing house for Euro- scep­ti­cism, even with Ukip due to de­part the scene. Salvini en­vi­sions a “league of Leagues” sit­ting in Brus­sels.

Who can Macron rally against them? Even the Euro­pean left is show­ing signs of ques­tion­ing its com­mit­ment to open bor­ders. In Ger­many, the Marx­ist Sahra Wa­genknecht of the Left party has started Auf­ste­hen, a pop­u­lar front meant to woo back work­ing- class vot­ers turned off by the glob­al­ist dog­mas, in­clud­ing free- and- easy im­mi­gra­tion. Den­mark’s So­cial Democrats have ral­lied be­hind a stern plan to im­pose on mi­grants the Dan­ish lan­guage and Dan­ish val­ues.

Salvini is pick­ing up mo­men­tum. The coali­tion gov­ern­ment that his League formed with the an­tic Five Star Move­ment has won the al­le­giance of more than half of Ital­ians, dou­bling the League’s sup­port from 17 to 32 per cent since the spring and turn­ing it into Italy’s most pop­u­lar party.

Macron, mean­while, has had a bad sum­mer. It be­gan with a scan­dal in­volv­ing his 26- year- old body­guard ( and ski­ing and bi­cy­cling com­pan­ion) Alexan­dre Be­nalla, who seemed to have a taste for wreak­ing phys­i­cal vi­o­lence on peo­ple who dis­agreed with his boss. At a May Day demon­stra­tion Be­nalla was cap­tured on mo­bile- phone videos wear­ing a po­lice hel­met ( al­though he was not a po­lice­man), pulling one pro­tester across the Place de la Con­trescarpe by her neck, and then cold- cock­ing an­other as he strug­gled on the ground. In the en­su­ing up­roar over why Be­nalla had barely been dis­ci­plined, Macron was re­duced to telling re­porters that Be­nalla was not his lover. Macron’s sum­mer ended with the dra­matic res­ig­na­tion on na­tional ra­dio of the charis­matic en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter, Ni­co­las Hu­lot.

The spec­ta­cle of two men who had never sought of­fice be­com­ing heads of ma­jor states on their first try — Don­ald Trump in 2016 and Macron the year af­ter — may have led some peo­ple to as­sume that all one needs for suc­cess in pol­i­tics is a “knack” for it. On the con­trary, mak­ing it as a politi­cian re­quires mas­ter­ing a lot of ar­cana. Trump’s en­e­mies have been able to use their un­der­stand­ing — and his ig­no­rance — of Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment pro­ce­dure to tie his whole pres­i­dency up in an in­ves­tiga­tive knot from which it will not soon es­cape. Late in Sil­vio Ber­lus­coni’s ca­reer as Italy’s premier, his op­po­nents were able to do the same, and Salvini’s foes hope to re­peat the trick.

Salvini is an ex­tra­or­di­nary politi­cian. Macron is not, or at least not yet. Pol­i­tics re­quires a pa­tient train­ing in dis­cern­ment, some­thing that Macron, though he is a fast learner, has not had the time to ac­quire. Macron has dis­missed Salvini as some­one who is al­ways try­ing to be provoca­tive, with­out con­sid­er­ing why a politi­cian might want to be provoca­tive.

Salvini can tell an im­preg­nable po­si­tion from a vul­ner­a­ble one. The French Pres­i­dent is still learn­ing. Ev­ery boat that ap­pears on the south­ern hori­zon casts a sin­is­ter shadow on Macron’s in­vo­ca­tions of Euro­pean sol­i­dar­ity. “There is no such thing as a real Dane,” Macron mused, on a re­cent trip to Copen­hagen. Surely that not only irked Danes, but also scared some of Macron’s own vot­ers.

Salvini is good with lan­guage. He has man­aged to re­frame hu­man­i­tar­i­an­ism as crim­i­nal­ity. He colour­fully de­scribes the non- gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions that trans­port mi­grants at sea as be­ing bound up in the same “busi­ness” as the mafiosi who guide them on land.

Salvini’s goal is to ex­pose Macron as the kind of politi­cian who favours wide- open im­mi­gra­tion. No Euro­pean leader can af­ford to be seen as a soft touch, though many seek a friend­lier- look­ing way to carry out hard­line poli­cies. Dan­ish PM Lars Løkke Ras­mussen, for in­stance, lately sug­gested that Europe at­tack the “causes” of mi­gra­tion.

That won’t work. The cause of the present wave of trans- Mediter­ranean mi­gra­tion is not poverty or any­thing that is within the power of the EU to cor­rect. It is, ul­ti­mately, pop­u­la­tion growth.

How Euro­peans re­act to this pop­u­la­tion ex­plo­sion will de­pend on whether they see it as bring­ing more help­ing hands or more mouths to feed. Salvini has found a set of na­tion­al­ist ar­gu­ments that win at the polls. But the in­sti­tu­tions of the global econ­omy re­main pow­er­ful and per­sua­sive, and Macron speaks for them in a fresher way than it is pos­si­ble to do in the US or Bri­tain or any coun­try where the agenda of ne­olib­eral dereg­u­la­tion has reigned since the 1980s. In eight months, the EU’s par­lia­men­tary elec­tions will show us which of these two paths Euro­peans are in­clined to take.

By ar­range­ment with the Spectator

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