Smells like neo-fascism: Roma in Italy and Salvini’s hate speech

06 April 2023

By Bernard Rorke

Minister Matteo Salvini’s latest racist intervention was described by the Italian ombudsperson for prisoners as a ‘serious cultural setback’.  On 23 March 2023, the Democratic Party withdrew its bill to improve conditions for imprisoned mothers, after it was sabotaged by amendments from the right-wing parties, who, according to Deputy Alessandro Zan, “inserted rules that actually make things worse, even allowing pregnant women or women with children under one year of age to go to prison.”

As the bill folded, Salvini went on the attack promising a tightening rather than a lightening of the law: “The Democratic Party frees Roma pickpockets who use children and pregnancy to avoid prison and continue to commit crimes. Shame on you. The League had passed the law in the Justice Commission and will immediately resubmit the text: it is a question of health, justice and common sense.”

In response, the Ombudsperson for prisoners Mauro Palma condemned Salvini’s comments, and described attributing a crime to an entire category as a ‘serious cultural setback’, because "it is never a minority or a social group as such that commits a crime".

This comes just one week after the ruling far-right rejected a proposed EU regulation recognising the rights of children of same-sex couples and the adoption of a European certificate of filiation, and the City of Milan being forced to discontinue the registration of children born to same-sex couples. MP Alessandro Zan described these “attacks on the rights of rainbow families”, together with another bill to eliminate sexual orientation and gender identity from the reasons for humanitarian protection, as Meloni’s attempt to drag Italy “back into the Middle Ages.” Zan warned such moves were part of an overall strategy “to dismantle hard-won civil rights that exist in our country today and which are the result of long battles and difficult conquests.”

There is nothing centre-right about post-Fascism

After the initial shock of Giorgia Meloni’s election victory subsided, it was back to business as usual, and a new chapter opened in Europe’s normalisation of neo-fascism. The European Commission has been reassured that as far as foreign policy and budgetary issues are concerned, Fratelli d’Italia will toe the line and, for now, avoid any confrontations with Brussels. 

In August 2022, European People’s Party (EPP) chief Manfred Weber visited Rome to express his support for convicted fraudster Silvio Berlusconi and Meloni’s coalition ahead of the election. Conservative and centrist media commentators increasingly came to describe the coalition as ‘centre-right’ rather than far-right as the election loomed, and dismissed concerns about Meloni’s extremism as alarmist. In the wake of the coalition victory, EPP Secretary General Thanasis Bakolas stated that the EPP was “absolutely committed” to Forza Italia.

The election result was in fact the latest ‘product of a long normalisation of far-right parties’ according to David Broder, who noted the key role played by Berlusconi, who boasted that he “invented the centre-right in 1994” by allying with “the League and the fascists” – “we legitimised and constitutionalised them”; and how  from the outset, Berlusconi made harsh anti-immigrant statements, routinely trivialised Mussolini’s crimes and appointed lifelong neo-fascists to top jobs. 

When Italy’s first far-right premier since Mussolini was sworn into office on 22 October 2022, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted her congratulations, noted that Meloni was Italy’s first female prime minister, and stated “I count on and look forward to constructive cooperation with the new government on the challenges we face together.” 

The trade-off would appear to be that Brussels keeps its nose out of what the post-fascists deem to be Italian business, or the internal affairs of a sovereign state. To divert attention from campaign promises gone sour and economic stagnation, it was predictable that the Meloni mob would opt to wage culture wars against multiculturalism and gender ideology, in defence of “God, homeland, family”, and back it up with nativist attacks on immigrants, LGBT ‘lobbies’, and other visible minorities, not least the Roma. 

Silence about Italy’s Roma

As columnists from left and right speculated about the significance of a Fratelli victory in the run up to the Italian general election in 2022, there was scarcely a mention of Italy’s Roma. This was all the more remarkable in light of the track record of Meloni’s coalition partners, Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini, whose treatment of Romani communities respectively, revealed much about what it means to normalise fascism in 21st Century Europe.  

The 2008 declaration of a State of Emergency to combat the so-called ‘Roma menace’ and the overtly racist demonisation of Romani people heralded a prolonged period of mass evictions and destruction of camps, harassment, expulsions, mob violence and pogroms against Roma communities. The European Roma Rights Centre and its partners challenged the State of Emergency decree before the Italian courts, and on 4 November 2011, the Council of State ruled that the emergency decree was illegal. 

However, the roots of the crisis could be traced back to official policies in the 1990s which placed Roma in segregated ‘nomad camps’; and up to this day, the legacy of this illegal state of exception still affects Roma as successive governments have failed to honour the commitment to ‘get beyond the system of camps.’ The extent to which anti-Roma racism had become normalised in Italy was evident not just in the persistence of mass evictions and demolitions of Roma camps, but in the dehumanising language that accompanied threats of expulsion and banishment targeting Roma, from the highest level of political office, such as one-time Foreign Minister Mateo Salvini with his notorious call in 2018 for a “mass cleansing street by street, piazza by piazza, neighbourhood by neighbourhood.”

That a population, singled out for extermination by the Nazis and their fascist allies, could be targeted in such a manner by the Italian far right in the 21st Century – and without a whisper of protest from the European Commission – speaks volumes about the resilience of racism. That commentators sounding the alarm about the dangers of the Fratelli d’Italia in power, neglected to mention apartheid-style policies that put Roma in segregated camps, abused their fundamental rights, and far right politicians that incited pogroms and collective persecution based on their ethnicity – speaks volumes about the extent to which antigypsyism has long been normalised in Italy. 

As Ruth Ben-Ghiat pointed out, back in 1994, Berlusconi broke the taboos against neo-fascist participation in government, “creating a new reality that made Meloni's career as a mainstream politician possible.” However, the oppression of Roma over two decades, and the public acquiescence and official indifference to their plight shows how racialised violence has long been normalised, and that in Italy there’s nothing new about neo-fascism in the corridors of power. 


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