With a popularity rating of 59 per cent and his right-wing Lega movement’s poll figures now double the vote it took in last year’s general election, Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini is the man of the moment. The selfie-obsessed politician has made ample use of social media to bypass established media channels, cutting out the middleman to get his message across directly to Italian voters.
Essential to Salvini’s popularity has been his firm – and much criticised – stand against illegal immigration and people trafficking amid the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. Since the NATO intervention in Libya, a long stretch of the North African littoral is now a lawless and ungoverned area. Criminal gangs have stepped into the breach, preying on the hopes of thousands of disadvantaged people across Africa and the Middle East, extracting huge profits with the promise of getting migrants into Europe.
Italy faces a particular burden given its extensive coastline and proximity to Libya. As the minister in charge of borders and security, Salvini has unabashedly sought the limelight for his policy of totally closing all Italian ports to vessels carrying migrants rescued in the Mediterranean.
While the policy has proved popular with voters, there is one place it has found considerably less approval: the Vatican. Rumours in Rome claim the interior minister wants nothing more than to be received by the Holy Father in the Casa Santa Marta, but Pope Francis has steered a cautious and critical course in his dealings with Salvini. No formal request has been made, but the feelers which have been put out have come back with a clear message: until the government drops its “ports closed” policy, Salvini won’t get his selfie with the Pope.
It’s not that the Vatican has shut the interior minister out completely; in September, he was warmly received at a celebration of the feast of St Michael the Archangel jointly organised by Italian police and the Vatican gendarmerie. But the event was excluded from the Vatican’s official agenda and was not promoted by the Holy See’s Press Office.
More telling than cold shoulders are those who have been welcomed warmly. Spanish politicians on the left have jumped over themselves to condemn Salvini’s policy and were delighted when Spain accepted one of the vessels turned away by Italy’s closed ports. Pope Francis recently received Madrid mayor Manuela Carmena and Barcelona mayor Ada Colau alongside Óscar Camps, founder of the pro-migrant NGO Open Arms. (As mayor of the Spanish capital, Carmena abolished the city’s official Nativity scene and said undocumented migrants are “heroes” who are “often have more skills or are more willing to work” than the Spanish.) Officially speaking, the meeting was a “strictly private affair”, but the Vatican press office’s interim director Alessandro Gisotti described the gathering as “cordial”.
Members of Lega – formerly known as the Northern League – expressed disapproval of the Spanish mayors’ visit. Immigration spokesman Toni Iwobi (Italy’s first black senator) asked: “Where were these mayors earlier, when uncontrolled immigration created social unrest? When big money was made exploiting immigrants? Or when thousands of immigrants were left to their fate?”
But speaking to Spanish television, Pope Francis was blunt: “To have blocked a ship is an injustice. Why do they do it? To drown them?”
Critics claim that the Pope’s stance on migration is simplistic. Angela Merkel’s plan to welcome a million migrants into Germany, they say, looks good in the headlines, but the reality on the ground is that it enables the economic exploitation of the vulnerable by criminal gangs of people smugglers and sex traffickers. The “ports closed” policy seems inhuman in our image-conscious age but according to supporters it offers the strongest hope of ending or significantly lessening the encouragement of criminals to put migrants’ lives at risk through Mediterranean crossings.
Meanwhile, one in three young Italians of working age is out of a job. Italy’s infrastructure is overwhelmed, short of investment and has suffered decades of neglect. As the partial collapse of a four-lane motorway bridge in Genoa last year demonstrated, some of it is literally falling apart.
If Pope Francis is such a critic, why is Salvini so keen to meet him? The reason is clear: Italy’s seven million practising Catholic voters. A sizable portion may vote for the Lega already but much of the Catholic lay establishment remains wary of the populist party. The weekly magazine Famiglia Cristiana, for example, with a circulation of half a million, has taken a very strong line against Salvini, with one front cover comparing him to Satan with the headline “Vade retro Salvini”.
Salvini knows that being received by the Holy Father in the Casa Santa Marta could calm establishment Catholic opposition to him and help him win more votes. All the same, he can’t afford to dump his most popular and successful policy for the sake of a photo op. With Salvini riding a popularity high already, there’s unlikely to be any movement on the part of either the Pope or the politician in the immediate future.