ROME—When Italy’s most powerful politician, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, signed up last week to join Steve Bannon’s effort to help populists on the continent win more seats in the European Parliament next year, he unwittingly underscored one of the inherent contradictions in Europe’s far-right populist movement. Much like other resurgent nationalists, Salvini, who is also Italy’s deputy prime minister, has steadily grown in power by fulminating against immigration and against the European Union. But now, by joining forces with Bannon, U.S. President Donald Trump’s ousted chief strategist, anti-EU activists are showing that they may not object to European unity as long as it is anchored in their preferred illiberal policies.
Salvini, the leader of Italy’s anti-immigrant League party, has risen in stature since parliamentary elections in March, when populists managed to capitalize on Italians’ discontent with traditional parties. The League and the Five Star Movement, led by Luigi Di Maio, burst from the fringes onto center stage. Despite having major policy disagreements, Di Maio and Salvini agreed to form a coalition government, with each of them as deputy prime minister and the largely unknown law professor Giuseppe Conte as prime minister.
But it is Salvini who has emerged as the voice of Italian populism, and as the undisputed leader of Italian politics during a time of European political turmoil. Some 10 weeks since the new government was sworn in, Salvini is charting a flamboyant, yet careful course in pursuit of his objectives.