ROME (Reuters) - In a European political landscape increasingly populated with insurgent, anti-system parties, Italy’s eurosceptic anti-immigrant Northern League is the latest to profit from a groundswell of hostility to the European Union.
The League’s 41-year-old leader, Matteo Salvini calls the euro a “criminal currency” and wants to demolish the Brussels consensus that has dominated European politics since the end of World War Two. He is also, at odds with mainstream leaders, an admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Salvini has become Italy’s second-most popular leader since taking over the party, founded in the early 1990s as a separatist movement in the prosperous north of Italy.
Forceful and plain-spoken, Salvini has emerged at the same time as the 39-year-old prime minister, Matteo Renzi, highlighting the generational change shaking up Italian politics since the fall of Silvio Berlusconi in 2011.
He is a friend of Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right National Front, and well-disposed to a Russian president who has spurred anger, and economic sanctions, in Brussels over his policies toward pro-Russian rebellion in eastern Ukraine.
“The Europe of today cannot be reformed in my opinion,” he told the foreign press association in Rome. “There’s nothing to be reformed in Brussels. It’s run by a group of people who hate the Italian people and economy in particular,” he said.
Such talk would once have been unthinkable from a mainstream Italian politician but more than six years of economic crisis have fueled a remarkable surge in anti-European sentiment in the eurozone’s third-largest economy.
With the Northern League, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party all to a greater or lesser extent against the euro, around half of Italian voters now support eurosceptic or outright anti-euro parties.
Salvini, who took over as Northern League leader last year after financial scandal brought down party founder Umberto Bossi, has surfed the wave of discontent. He has played down the movement’s former regional focus and wants to broaden its appeal into southern Italy, where the crisis has hit hardest.
As well as his opposition to the euro, he says he would introduce a single flat-tax rate of 15 percent, deport illegal immigrants immediately and crack down on crime with tough measures including chemical castration for sex offenders.
Recent polls give the Northern League around 10 percent of the vote and Salvini said polls suggest it could win between 4 and 7 percent of the vote in central and southern Italy. His own popularity was running at 26 percent, behind Renzi on 40.
With the 5-Star Movement beset by infighting and slipping in the opinion polls, he hopes to claim much of the protest vote against the man he mockingly calls “His Majesty Renzi”. Fears that his message could alarm Italy’s partners or the financial markets are dismissed unceremoniously.
“I don’t want to reassure anyone at all,” he said.