"The captain is coming!"
As evening fell on the town of Alzano lombardo in northern Italy one Sunday in early September, about 2,000 people crowded into a marquee tent. Anticipation grew as the announcer blared through a loudspeaker over the music, “Il capitano sta arrivando!”—The captain is coming!
Il capitano was Italy’s Matteo Salvini—the far-right Interior Minister whose rocketing rise over just six months has jolted Europe’s establishment and threatens to finally upturn a political system that has reeled under a populist surge for the past three years. When Salvini finally burst onto the stage after dark in jeans and his trademark green sneakers, the crowd was spellbound. For nearly two hours, a beer in one hand, he told the audience he would seize back control of their lives from the European Union’s faceless bureaucrats. “Italians first!” he shouted, to loud cheers.
If Salvini has his way, his campaign to reshape Europe might have only just begun. In a rare, far-ranging interview with TIME in Rome on Sept. 4, Salvini laid out a plan that would not just shake the E.U. to its foundations but also might remake it from the inside out. “Changing Europe is a big goal,” he says. “But I think it is at our fingertips.”
The Italian election in March delivered a humbling defeat to the country’s traditional parties and put Salvini in the position of kingmaker—he chose to ally his far-right party, the League, with the first-place finisher, anti-establishment Five Star Movement. The populist coalition represents a new era in this country’s famously fractious politics. Salvini grabbed the powerful job of Interior Minister, and is now responsible for Italy’s policing, national security and immigration policies. He is not Italy’s head of government—that job is held by the Five Star Movement’s Giuseppe Conte—but he doesn’t need to be. The parade of foreign dignitaries lining up to meet Salvini leaves little doubt about who calls the shots. Salvini is now seen as the closest thing Italy has to a chief executive.
The right-wing leader’s ambitions extend far beyond his country, however—and that’s what is sending jitters through Europe. Many see him as the leader most capable of piecing together a large group of populist, nationalist parties in Europe, one that crosses national boundaries in the name of nationalism. On Sept. 7, former White House chief strategist and proto-nationalist godfather Stephen Bannon met Salvini in Rome to discuss creating a hard-line coalition across Europe for crucial E.U. elections next May, capable of crushing the neoliberal and centrist parties that have led Brussels for decades.
Bannon told TIME by phone on Sept. 8, after meeting Salvini in Rome, that his new Brussels-based organization, called “The Movement,” aims to capture enough seats for right-wing populists in the European Parliament in next year’s elections to allow them—at the very least—to block any further efforts at E.U. integration; he calls it “command by negation.” To Salvini, it’s more elemental. “We are working to re-establish the European spirit that has been betrayed by those who govern this union,” he says. Slipping into the first-person pronoun, he adds: “It is clear I have to change the European dynamics.”
The populist wave in Europe has been building steadily over the past several years. Some believed it had crested with Britain’s vote to leave the E.U. in June 2016, especially after the globalist, pro-E.U. Emmanuel Macron defeated far-right leader Marine Le Pen last year to become President of France. But Europe’s right-wing nationalists have not vanished into obscurity. In Hungary, Denmark, Poland and more, they have quietly slipped into parliaments or won significant numbers of votes. In Germany, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) became the official opposition party. Austria’s Freedom Party is now part of a coalition government. Even one of Europe’s most liberal countries, Sweden, isn’t immune—the far-right Sweden Democrats won a record 17.6% of votes on Sept. 9. In each case, the message is the same: stronger borders, drastically fewer migrants and a desire to take back control from the elites.
These politicians are not—for now—advocating following the U.K. out of the E.U.’s door. In fact, for Europe’s leaders, they are arguing for something perhaps more hazardous to integrated Europe—a radical ideological remake, including reining in open markets and open borders, and snatching back control from Brussels over key decisions like public spending. If they succeed, they will remake a continent. Few voices are louder in the movement than that of Matteo Salvini. “I choose to change things from within,” Salvini says. “That is more difficult and longer and more complicated. But it is a more concrete solution.”
Two days after his packed Alzano Lombardo rally, Salvini sinks into an armchair in his office inside the ornate Viminale Palace, which houses the Interior Ministry buildings in Rome. Tall, with a round face and scraggly beard, his boyish looks make him seem younger than his 45 years. He wears a red rubber wristband for his beloved AC Milan soccer team. But the green sneakers and beer are gone, replaced with the dark suit and crisp shirt of a politician in command.
When Salvini took over the party, then titled the Northern League, in 2013, it was virtually extinct and mired in financial corruption. Its popularity was confined to only a tiny minority of northern pro-autonomy supporters. As Europe began dealing with an unprecedented influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa, Salvini sensed an opportunity, broadening the League’s message to encompass a trenchant nationalism (and in the process dropping the Northern from its name). He seized on Italians’ frustrations over their debt-laden economy, sluggish growth and a more than one-third youth unemployment rate, and minted a new slogan with Trumpian echoes: “Italians first.”
His message was impeccably timed. Years of government ineptitude had left both the mainstream right-wing, under Silvio Berlusconi, and the center-left, under Matteo Renzi, struggling for credibility. The rebels stormed into the vacuum. Although the bigger Five Star Movement finished first in elections in March, the League captured an unprecedented 17.4% share of the vote. In the six months since, polls suggest the party’s support has grown to almost a third of the electorate.
The driving force behind the League’s explosive growth has been immigration, still a hot-button issue in Europe after the collapse of Syria precipitated the biggest exodus since WW II. Ahead of the March election, Salvini put it at the center of his campaign. He made the wildly impracticable promise to deport 500,000 undocumented immigrants from Italy—roughly the total that have landed on Italian shores since 2015. The message for migrants lining up on the other side of the Mediterranean, Salvini said, was la pacchia è finita (“the party’s over”). That resonated with many Italians in the wake of the crisis. “We don’t have jobs for Italians, so it is difficult to give jobs to these people,” says Simona Pergreffi, a League -senator from Bergamo, who then makes clear her racial objection: “Not to mention, they want to impose their religion,” she says.
As is often the case with migration, the perception doesn’t reflect the reality. The flow of migrants across the Mediterranean has ebbed significantly since the peak of the crisis; from 1 million in 2015 to just 89,000 so far this year. A little over 18,000 arrived by sea to Italy, an 80% drop since the same period in 2017. In that context, experts say Salvini’s obsessional focus on migration doesn’t make a lot of sense. “He is a one-trick pony,” says Daniel Gros, director of the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels. “Yet the hysteria has increased.”
As Italy’s Interior Minister, Salvini now wants to suspend asylum procedures completely until the E.U. agrees on fair distribution of refugees, an issue that has deadlocked leaders in Brussels for years. He has incensed E.U. leaders by blocking NGO rescue boats from Italian ports—in August, he blocked a German-registered charity boat, the Aquarius, from disembarking 629 migrants it had rescued at sea; the vessel finally rerouted to Spain. Macron called Salvini’s action “nauseating.” Weeks later, Salvini refused to allow 144 migrants, mostly Africans, to disembark from an Italian coast-guard vessel in the Sicilian port of Catania. Only after a few days of furor did he allow women and children to leave the boat.
Salvini welcomes the outrage. Under E.U. law, migrants are obliged to settle in the first E.U. country in which they land. Salvini says that is particularly unfair for Italy, the closest point in Europe to the migrant-smuggling centers in strife-riven Libya. He says he regards the blockade as a major success, even though it violated international maritime law, as well as migration conventions to which Italy is a signatory. “If it happens again, we will behave in exactly the same way,” he says.
Europe’s battle lines are now sharply drawn: Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel on one side; Salvini and his allies on the other. In early September, the Italian hosted Hungary’s far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban in his hometown of Milan. There, Orban called Salvini his “comrade in destiny,” in which the two would command one of the “two camps in Europe”—their anti–immigration side, and the liberal, global-minded one, led by their nemesis Macron. The French President returned fire: “If they want to see me as their main opponent,” he said, “they are right to do so.”
Few would argue that the E.U’s immigration policies are working as they should. But there are strong raw racial overtones in Salvini’s promise to wall off Italy from migrants—the majority of whom are now from Africa. “History will entrust us with the role of saving European values,” he tells TIME, listing among those values, “the Judeo-Christian roots, the right to work, the right to life.” He also links migrants to crime—a charge his detractors say is a racist lie. Again, he brushes off the criticism. “If I can reduce the number of these crimes, and the presence of illegal immigrants, they can call me racist all they want.”
If all this sounds familiar, it is probably because Salvini has drawn some crucial inspiration from another disruptive Western leader: President Donald Trump. In 2016, Salvini flew to Philadelphia to see Trump during the presidential campaign, gushing over the candidate and snapping a photo with him. Salvini tells TIME that both before and after the March elections, he met Bannon to discuss his options. The former White House policy adviser, now apparently out of favor with Trump, urged Salvini to form a coalition with the Five Star Movement to show that populism was “the new organizing principle” in Europe.
That new “organizing principle” could, if it came to pass, result in changes that might sound familiar in the age of Trump. Salvini, for example, favors dropping Russian sanctions, which the E.U. imposed after President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea in 2014. Salvini signed a “co-operation agreement” with Putin’s United Russia Party before the March elections. “I only have an idea of having a good partnership between Russia and Europe,” Salvini says, echoing the U.S. President’s oft-repeated statement that better U.S.-Russia relations would be a “good thing.” He finds the allegations of Russian interference in elections in the U.S. and Europe “ridiculous,” he adds. “Like Trump, I would say that fake news is distributed 24 hours a day.”
Also like Trump, Salvini often bypasses major media in favor of social media—although Facebook, and not Twitter, is his preferred means of communication. During the controversy over the migrant boats Salvini eschewed talking to the press, and instead posted a tough anti-immigration message on Facebook to his 3 million followers. It reached a total of 8 million people, he says. “That is far bigger than traditional media.”
But there are some events Salvini cannot control. On the day TIME met him in his office in Rome, the large-screen TV screens behind him splashed the headline Chaos in Libya, as rival factions battled in the country’s capital, Tripoli. With Italy as Libya’s closest neighbor and economic partner, Salvini darted anxious looks at the screen, concerned that the fighting would send thousands more across the sea to Italy’s coast. When I ask Salvini if it had been a mistake for NATO to order bombing strikes against slain Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, he exclaims, “Certamenti si!… Exporting this Western model of democracy in countries that don’t want it or are not ready creates disasters,” he says. At one point, an aide shows Salvini a report blaming him for Libya’s upheaval because he has shut -Italy’s doors to migrants. Salvini shakes his head. “What the f-ck do I have to do with the chaos in Libya?” he mutters.
In truth, not a whole lot. But the chaos in Libya and Syria, and the deep poverty elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa, has in many ways been the making of Salvini. It has propelled him and other like-minded nationalists into positions of authority across Europe. Now, they have set their sights on something potentially far more radical than even the Brexiteers have managed: the remaking of the E.U. from within, drastically changing it after decades. Closing the borders to migrants is just the start. Far-right leaders like Salvini chafe against other dictates from Brussels, like central financial regulations, and a 3% public-deficit limit. “We have had three hours of meetings on the Italian economy,” he says, referring to a cabinet meeting immediately before the interview, “always with the shadow of Brussels in the background, the European constraints, the European rules, the European numbers.”
Elections next year for the E.U. parliament, which decides the direction of the political and social bloc, will test whether Salvini, Orban and other nationalists can build a coalition to rival the Merkel-Macron axis. The latter shows signs of fracturing; the German Chancellor is already being forced to make concessions to right-wing coalition partners. What was a battle for votes looks like a tie. Now, the battle of ideas has begun—and those who shout the loudest may be in the best position to win. “History goes in cycles,” Salvini says. “This is more than a confrontation between right and left. It is the confrontation between the elite and the people.”
Outside the Alzano Lombardo rally on Sept. 2, Salvini’s supporters were all ears. “All our problems began with the E.U.,” says Francesca Bertocchi, 55, a furniture sales rep, as she sat waiting for Salvini to arrive. “He is the only one who says things that give us hope for the future.”
— With reporting by Brian Bennett/Washington, and Alessandro Ricci and Matteo Barzini/Rome