I travelled through the night by train from Vienna to Florence – through regions where borders have been rather fluid throughout history.
I left what Austria’s far-right Freedom Party – the FPÖ – might call ‘old’ Austria; and entered what Italy’s far-right Northern League party (the Lega Nord) would like officially to call Padania – the name given to a collection of northern Italian regions which since 1991 the Lega Nord has been proposing, with greater or lesser impetus, as a separate state.
In reality the Lega Nord, which was founded in 1991 by Umberto Bossi, is a federalist party that is calling for Italy to become a federal state and thereby give the northern provinces greater autonomy. The underlying, not-so-unspoken message is ‘the relatively wealthy north is fed up with paying for the relatively poor south’.
The party is also eurosceptic, anti-globalisation and anti-immigration. It follows the ‘big tent’ philosophy, which means it welcomes members from all wings of politics – far left and far right – as long as they adhere broadly to the party’s core tenets. In practice, this is all about bringing on board as many supporters as it can muster, without worrying too much about members’ political pedigrees.
Its current eight MEPs are part of the right-wing, eurosceptic Europe of Freedom and Democracy group, chaired jointly by Nigel Farage (UKIP) and the League’s own Francesco Speroni.
Like most political campaigners, the relatively youthful leader of the Lega Nord, Matteo Salvini, set himself a punishing campaign schedule, on his “We’ve had enough of the Euro” tour. ‘If it’s 4.15pm on Thursday, it must be Florence.’
After more than ten years of covering the key moments in Italy’s political life, I’m well aware that Italian politics often is a heady operatic mix: that’s soap opera blended with musical-theatre opera. This afternoon’s setting was just such an example.
A small stage was prepared for Mr Salvini in the stunning Piazza della Signoria; but the backdrop was far more imposing.
It included the 700-year-old Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s striking town hall; and the huge replica of Michelangelo’s David statue, peering down in all his glory. And just feet away was the world-famous Uffizi Gallery, with its priceless collection of works of art.
From the loud speakers, a version of ‘O Fortuna’ from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana blasted out.
(The irony of a fiercely proud northern Italian party, based in the region of Vivaldi and Puccini, using music by a German composer to introduce the leader seemed to be lost on the Lega Nord).
The menacing opening section of ‘O Fortuna’ was familiar; less so the Italian pappy-pop section that had been inserted to give it that extra populist appeal.
(As an aside: Carmina Burana was written in Germany in 1937. The piece is said to be highly evocative; it was embraced by the Nazis; but ultimately, despite its appealing bluster, has no actual meaning.)
As the party workers – many bearing the League’s white flag with its green, circular symbol – prepared for the arrival of their boss, I was once again struck by how the glory of Florence – with its 13th century duomo and renaissance squares – never ceases to impress. Which is why the streets of central Florence teem with visitors from around the world whenever the sun shines – and often when it doesn’t.
This afternoon was no exception.
Anxious looking, lanyard-bearing global tourists followed raised umbrellas and flags of differing designs, keeping up with yet another language’s version of the history of the centre of ancient Florence, now a World Heritage site. Much of the scene was being captured by a man taking a shot using his iPad, which was covered by a plastic protector bearing a faux leopard-skin design.
And all this watched over by eager restaurateurs, landau drivers and hawkers.
There were other eyes too. Various ranks of police officers had started to fill one section of the square. At least 40 policemen – some riot police, some regular officers, all touting pistols – remained calm and friendly; but it was clear they and their large vehicles were ready for anything.
As time marched on, I did the maths: the police outnumber the League’s own party workers. And they, for their part, outnumbered the ‘regular punters’ who turned up to listen.
And then there was Angela Merkel.
No – she didn’t turn up in person. But in line with the Lega Nord’s calls for Italy to ditch the Euro, her name did feature on one of the party’s main placards.
It read: “For Sale: €uro (sic) project. Enquiries to: Angela Merkel”. (No mention of ‘one careful owner’….)
And then suddenly there he was – Matteo Salvini, dressed in a road-workers luminous jacket and hard hat. He was doing interviews beside the stage and was surrounded by party workers – and baffled tourists. He was given a huge, screaming build up on stage by another young party worker – the microphone squealing with feedback.
And then he began a fast, furious and succinct speech.
It was peppered with calls for an end to the Euro and for Italy to take back control of its own affairs. Salvini described the Euro project as ‘dead’. (In the past he has referred to the Euro as ‘a crime against humanity’.)
“Give me Italian tomatoes instead of Euros any day”, he said.
He was vociferous in his criticism of bailouts, banks and fiscal pacts; and he called for tighter immigration controls.
And then came a finale of support for the leader of France’s Front National, Marine Le Pen, due on French television a few hours later.
With the Lega Nord’s support dropping – as voters turn to new fringe parties that have emerged since the last European elections – the party is predicted to lose half its MEPs this time round. This is despite a growing disaffection in some sectors of Italian society with the European project; and an economy that has teetered on the brink of disaster.
Erica, Anna, Francesca and Giorgia are all in their 30s and work in fashion retail. They have good jobs and some money to spend on fun, which is what they were having in this afternoon’s Florence sunshine.
They are worried about the economy and the environment. Anna tells me that Italy is light-years behind other European member states when it comes to protecting the environment or developing sources of renewable energy. That, says Anna, is why we need the EU. And all of the women want tougher controls on illegal immigration. (The stories of some-times tragic attempts by illegal immigrants to enter the EU often come from Lampedusa, an Italian island temptingly close to the north African coast.)
Erica and Anna admit they don’t yet know who they’ll vote for when Italians go to the polls this Sunday. Francesca and Giorgia are a little more clear: they think they’ll vote for the 5-Star Movement (a relatively new populist, environmentalist but also softly Eurosceptic party).
They all say they still want to hear what the different parties have to offer.
So there’s still time for the anti-Euro Mr Salvini and his party workers – who have little time for Frau Merkel – to don their luminous vests and hard hats and continue to blast out a few more bars of Germany’s ‘O Fortuna’.
Tomorrow: Berlin and the final rally of the ‘Alternatives for Germany’ party
Tags: LegaNord, Italy, EUElections2014, MatteoSalvini