Matteo Salvini’s responsibilities are technically limited to oversight of immigration, elections and domestic security. But the head of the League – or Lega Nord as it was known in Italy – has deftly used his political skills, including stoking fear of immigrants, to overshadow the country’s weak new prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, and outshine his 31-year-old coalition partner, Luigi Di Maio of the Five Star Movement, who has seemed to fumble through his first weeks in government.
The Economist presents Salvini within the context of the fact that Angela Merkel, now, is not the only head of a European government with a disruptive interior minister.
It adds that since entering the Italian cabinet on June 1st Matteo Salvini has managed for different reasons to annoy the governments of Tunisia, Malta, France and Spain. And he can scarcely have endeared himself to Mrs Merkel by openly making common cause with his German counterpart, Horst Seehofer. On June 18th Mr Salvini even picked a fight with Cambodia. In the latest of several excursions outside his ministerial bailiwick, Mr Salvini, who is also a deputy prime minister and leader of the hard-right Northern League, threatened to ban ships carrying Cambodian rice from docking in Italian ports. He claimed the rice, which is exempt from EU tariffs, was competing unfairly with Italian produce.
With his bull-in-a-china-shop approach Mr Salvini has dominated the political agenda from the start, even though his party is the junior partner in a coalition with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S); polls now show his party in the lead. His cocktail of provocative sound-bites and radical action (notably his refusal on June 10th to grant entry to an NGO rescue vessel laden with migrants) has made it seem as if he is deciding Italian foreign policy. But Nathalie Tocci, director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali, a think-tank, is sceptical that he will make a lasting impact. “I struggle to see anything meaningful coming out of it all,” she says.
Mr Conte was sponsored by the M5S. But like his foreign minister, he is another technocrat without a power base, and the M5S is more interested in economic and social affairs than foreign policy. Mr Conte is painfully at sea in international affairs. At the G7 meeting this month he backed Donald Trump’s call for the readmission of Russia, only to be swiftly talked round by Italy’s EU partners. As for the 31-year-old Mr Di Maio, he is no match for the media-savvy leader of the League. Mr Salvini is still a man to watch. And, many feel, one who needs watching.
Read more here on the Economist. We also invite you to read the analysis by Stephanie Kirchgaessner about phenomenon Matteo Salvini˘for the Guardian.