Shortly after Matteo Salvini strides into our private Roman dining room, I begin to worry that our intimate lunch may collapse into an extended meet and greet.
We are inside the Terrazza Borromini, a luxurious restaurant overlooking the Piazza Navona. Above us is a rooftop bar unironically named “The Great Beauty” after Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning portrait of the crumbling decadence of Roman high society.
Inside, a parade of ferociously tanned and exquisitely dressed men and women bustle through the corridor towards their tables — and some of them are very keen on getting face time with the Italian politician whose followers call him “Il Capitano”. A powerful television executive sticks his head around the door, followed by a female presenter. Salvini exchanges pleasantries and the pair leave, with the TV boss reassuring that his companion is “very beautiful without the mask on”.
This rarefied world of air-kissing socialites in the heart of the Italian capital might seem an improbable milieu for the populist who has made his career by lambasting the establishment and who spent his early years in politics heaping scorn on the corruption of “thieving Rome”.
Yet Salvini’s League is unexpectedly back in power as part of the emergency unity coalition led by Mario Draghi, the former European Central Bank president. The new Draghi government is staunchly pro-EU (Salvini once toured Italy wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “no more euro”), aligned with Nato (Salvini has long expressed his admiration for Vladimir Putin) and allied with the new Biden administration (Salvini was a Maga-hat-wearing Donald Trump supporter).
So is Salvini a man transformed? Is the politician this newspaper once described in an editorial as “a barbarian” (he responded at the time: “better to be a barbarian than a slave”) now a creature of the establishment?
“The world has changed,” says the 48-year-old senator. “Europe has changed, the world has changed, the United States has changed, the economic dynamics have changed. We have certain values, and those remain.”
Sitting across from me is the archetype of the modern European populist — a seductive showman who can pirouette from firebrand to everyman in the blink of an eye.
Two years ago, he appeared on the brink of becoming Italy’s prime minister, an outcome that would have put the staunch ally of France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen in charge of the EU’s third-biggest economy. Few in Italy would have imagined this rise possible back in 2013, when he became leader of the then marginal Northern League, remoulding the party from a northern separatist outfit into a pan-Italian nationalist movement based on raging against Brussels and campaigning to deport illegal migrants.
Then, in the summer of 2019, at the pinnacle of his popularity, Salvini brought down his own coalition government — from a beach party, mojito in hand. The then interior minister demanded a snap election and asked Italians to grant him “full powers”, provocatively choosing the same phrase that Mussolini had used in his first speech after taking power in 1922. The gambit failed: his rivals outmanoeuvred him, forming a new coalition, and he was exiled to opposition.
Before that mis-step, he had made an art form of calibrating his rhetoric — and outfits — to his audience. There have been outings of “Fireman Salvini”, dressed in a full firefighter’s outfit, and “Law and Order Salvini”, wearing a police jacket. There has also been “Machine Gun Salvini”, spraying off shots from an automatic weapon and “Hard Hat Salvini”, demolishing a Mafia-owned villa in a digger.
Last year, just before Covid-19 struck, we were introduced to “Left Bank Salvini”, wearing spectacles and a turtleneck. The Salvini before me today is dressed in a sharp dark suit, waistcoat and tie, and a crisp white shirt. The head waiter comes in to flash Salvini his own green suit lining, the colour of the League party. “I always wear this when you come,” he says, beaming with pride at his VIP guest.
Salvini enquires about the off-menu options and is offered up a platter of tuna, salmon, caponata (a Sicilian dish made of chopped aubergine, olives and tomatoes) and stracciatella.
Salvini is on a diet, informing the waiter he can’t eat pasta or cheese. He eventually opts for a tuna tartare, momentarily tempted by a side of fried fish before thinking better of it. I, resolutely not on a diet, pick the mezze maniche pasta with aubergine, tomatoes, salted ricotta and swordfish.
As a result of the Covid crisis, Italy’s public debt has ballooned to an all-time high, and it has jettisoned previously strict budgetary rules imposed by Brussels. For Salvini, this is a vindication of his long-held views — and a rebuttal to those who are shocked that he has pledged support to Draghi, the personification of the European technocratic elite. “It is clear that Europe is changing for the better by equipping itself with new tools and new rules, and we must accompany it,” he says. “Covid has forced European institutions to listen to us. We hope that Covid has taught everyone that austerity doesn’t work”.
So what does he make of his depiction outside Italy as an extremist? At home the League describes itself, as “centre right”, a label most of the national media endorses. Abroad Salvini is frequently called “far right”. He bristles at the tag. “It is a mislabel because the Italians are not a population of extremists, much less racists. We govern much of the country, and they would not vote for us if we were extremists. There is a lot of laziness on the part of the foreign press, because on the economic front we are absolutely liberal.”
Salvini is keen to stress his economic credentials, his desire to cut taxes and boost growth and employment. But lurking behind this is the League’s long and troubling history with racism of either the explicit or dog whistle variety. In 2013 Roberto Calderoli, a League senator, compared Cécile Kyenge, Italy’s first black cabinet minister, to “an orang-utan”. Calderoli was not sanctioned by the party and remains a League senator to this day.
Salvini responded at the time that politicians such as Kyenge should not be criticised for being “beautiful or ugly, or because they are models or orang-utans, but because they are pawns of a design that wants to erase identities, diversities, histories”.
Salvini himself only last year knocked on the door of an Italian-Tunisian family during a regional election campaign and, in front of a large press pack, accused their son of being a drug dealer. Salvini delivers the old trope of reactionary political movements, arguing to me that his party the League cannot be racist because it has black members.
For at least a fifth of the electorate, including some of the southerners his party once reviled, all of this is neither here nor there. While the League has fallen from the highs of 2019, it remains, narrowly, the most popular party in Italy. Should elections be held tomorrow, Salvini would be among the favourites to become prime minister.
Once Draghi has left office (he is expected to step down before the next elections), surely Salvini wants to be prime minister? He gives a classic politician’s answer, saying he approaches politics with “ambition, because those in life and in work who do not have ambition don’t believe in what they do. But I do not live for this.”
And what about his previous comments, five years ago, that Italy would take the radical step of ditching the euro? “I repeat,” he says, slightly tetchily, “even before Covid the economic situation had changed, and after Covid the world has also changed, so right now our priorities at a European level are not the currency but the economic and financial rules and the possibility to invest and spend”.
The nature of the working relationship between Salvini, whose average daily Twitter output consists of pictures of him eating Nutella one moment and angry posts about migration the next, and Draghi, who has no social media accounts at all, is intriguing.
He says he speaks regularly with Draghi about the Italian economy, and believes that the country — which has not grown in real terms since the turn of the millennium — can boom as it emerges from Covid and embarks on an ambitious reform programme. Economists are forecasting Italy could grow this year at the fastest rate since the late 1980s.
In Salvini’s telling, the development from northern separatist to Draghi loyalist is all part of a continuous and logical political evolution. The nativism is the same, but the geographic scale has expanded.
He joined his party aged 17, becoming a Milan city councillor aged 20. When he was a young activist, refusing in disgust to shake the hand of Italy’s president, the great enemy was Rome and southern Italy. Later, as party leader, it was migration and meddling from Brussels. Now, he says a strong Europe is the best way of protecting Italy’s way of life.
“Italy is Italy because it has 8,000 different municipalities, with different dialects, different cuisines,” he says. “My idea of Europe is a Europe of the people, not a European superstate but a union of diversity and community”.
Our waiter returns to ask if we are enjoying our food. Salvini, clearly ravenous, has demolished his plate of raw fish. My pasta is delicious, the rich tomato sauce and the ricotta clinging to each strand. Salvini has given in to his urge for a side of fried fish, and he requests a portion.
We turn to Trump and Putin. Trump’s election in 2016 transformed Salvini from a domestic figure to the internationally recognised face of European populism. He adopted the slogan “Italians First” and was cast as a European addition to the new cadre of global strongmen laying siege to the established international order.
So how does he feel about Trump now? He salutes the former US president’s fiscal and security policies and his record on the economy and cutting taxes, and on stressing the need to control immigration, before neatly pivoting. “The Americans voted, and when the people vote they are always right,” he says, stressing the desire to cultivate “equally good relations with Biden”.
And what of his deep admiration of Putin, given that the new Draghi government has declared its unwavering commitment to supporting Nato? Salvini has travelled regularly to Russia and repeatedly called for economic sanctions on the country to be lifted.
“I am an absolute supporter of the Atlantic alliance and believe the future is the west,” he says. “I believed, and I still believe, that having diplomatic relations with Russia is an intelligent thing, but not because they seduced me, or gave me money, but because I know many Italian entrepreneurs who would like to work more with Russia.”
The “money” he refers to are allegations that the League took money from Putin. Salvini has always staunchly denied taking “even one rouble”.
“There have been five years of investigations without finding anything,” he says. “There is nothing to find.”
We return to immigration. It was the European migration crisis of 2015 that Salvini expertly exploited to build a national platform and overtake the ageing Silvio Berlusconi’s fading Forza Italia party on the Italian right.
He says he has never been against immigrants but has campaigned to stop illegal immigration into Italy, which he argues affects the country far more than most other EU members due to its geography.
But he has long exaggerated the situation as an emergency (the number of migrants arriving in Italy has fallen sharply from 2015), and repeatedly and falsely linked migration to rising crime. As interior minister he passed tough rules on asylum, and he is facing a trial in Sicilian court for blocking the arrival of a migrant rescue boat when in office in 2019. Surely there is a way to talk about migration that is more humane, less inflammatory?
“I hope so,” he says. “I can be silent [on immigration] if the problems are solved elsewhere. If they implement, for example, the  Malta agreement to redistribute those who land here, if there were repatriations to Nigeria, to Pakistan. Europe, unfortunately, has done very little on this, and even Draghi has noticed”.
Children born in Italy to foreign parents are not guaranteed the right to be recognised as Italian. Salvini has long been a staunch defender of the “jus sanguinis” citizenship policy based on Italian blood, not your place of birth. This policy means a person born anywhere in the world with an Italian great-grandparent can obtain an Italian passport, but someone born in Italy to foreign parents must often wait until they are 18 years old. The children of immigrants risk growing up never feeling accepted as Italian. Is this, I ask him, fair?
“In my opinion it is fair that anyone can choose [to become Italian] at 18,” he replies. Salvini disputes that this sort of policy makes Italy inhospitable for immigrants. “In Italy we have about five million foreigners who are very well integrated,” he says.
As we sip our espresso Salvini insists that he has been mischaracterised by the media. “Many people that I meet who don’t know me say that I am very different from what the television and newspapers portray,” he says. And what is that, I ask?
“They paint a picture of an extremist, a racist, a fascist, a Nazi, an egotist. I am simply a normal person, lucky, 48 years old, accomplished, with children I love, a job I enjoy, and good common sense”.
He says he has to leave to attend an important political meeting. He is in talks with Berlusconi over merging the League with the former prime minister and media tycoon’s Forza Italia. If he succeeds, Salvini could dominate the Italian right for years.
As we get to our feet I wonder if he will achieve what he so clearly craves: to convince the world he is no barbarian, but rather a mainstream politician. Would the absorption of the League be a success for European centrist politics, or a disaster?
I think again about which version of Salvini I have met. Perhaps he is correct, the world is changing, and he is changing with it. Or, more likely, I haven’t really met the man at all but just another one of his costumes.
Miles Johnson is the FT’s Rome correspondent
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