Authoritarian right: Italy

Another authoritarian party in government is Lega. It was set up almost 30 years ago as a secessionist party with the provocative mission to increase the autonomy of northern Italy and decrease public funding to what it called the ‘lazy, pariah’ southern Italy. After a particularly bad corruption scandal involving its leader Umberto Bossi in 2012 where Lega defrauded the state to the tune of € 49 million, a leadership succession eventually led to Matteo Salvini becoming Chair. Since then he has led a party re-structuring dropping the “Nord” from its name and creating a national strategy against the EU and refugees. In 2018 Lega joined with the 5 Star Movement to form a coalition Government.


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In 2014 Lega elected five MEPs, including two that left in 2018 to form the new Italian Government: Matteo Salvini (current Minister of Interior and de facto power in the country) and Lorenzo Fontana (current Minister of Family and Disability). In 2017 they added another MEP after Marco Zanni defected from the 5 Star Movement to join them. Lega MEPs Mario Borghezio is seen as a key link with the extreme-right movement having been convicted of three hate crimes: including assaulting a 12 year old boy, setting fire to the pallets where a group of migrants slept, and making racist remarks and asking for the sexual assault of a then-sitting Italian Minister.


Do the slogans match the voting record?

During the 2018 Italian elections Lega’s slogan on labour policy was: “Work does not mean making every last exertion, but to realise one’s talent with the right amount of economic satisfaction.” Yet, according to our research, at the EU level Lega MEPs voting record on workers’ rights show they did not support proposals to implement the conditions necessary for work-life balance, decent working conditions for all workers, and the mechanism to detect gender pay gaps.

When it came to tax Salvini ran nationally on a flat tax rate under the motto “All pay, pay less. And Italy distributes.” Nationally, the majority of their measures are not designed to target mass scale evasion (a systemic problem with multinational corporations). This is reflected by a somewhat confusing voting pattern at EU level. According to our research, while Lega MEPs did support a three per cent digital services tax, meant to target the big tech giants that avoid national taxation, Lega MEPs rejected the creation of an authority that would fight tax evasion and the proposal to create a minimum effective corporate tax rate of 25 per cent.

In spite of dedicating a fairly large section of its manifesto to the environment, Lega’s profile is particularly atrocious when it comes to climate change. Lega MEPs voted against the swift phase out of fossil fuels and boosting environmental justice, according to our research. Climate Action Network’s analysis gave the party a “scandalous 1% score” on their voting record on policies to fight climate change, going on to say that Lega (and other nationalistic parties) “cannot offer solutions to the climate crisis”. Similarly, Adelphi found that “Lega has voted against all analysed EU climate and energy policy proposals tabled in the European Parliament between 2014 and 2018, except the vote on energy performance in buildings”.

Out of the list of 14 votes we analysed, Lega opposed or abstained in 8 (see the votes here). Salvini has not exercised his right to vote in any of the votes analysed while he was an MEP, apparently preferring to make TV and social media appearances.


Lega MEP’s side jobs

Lega MEP Angelo Ciocca seems to be fairly busy. Ciocca’s declaration of financial interests lists three jobs that he performs at the same time as being an MEP. SidenoteHis other listed jobs are city councillor with a salary of up to €500 a month, and an unpaid role as partner of the Agricultural society Cornalba SRL. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/mepdif/183793_DFI_LEG8_rev1_IT.pdf One of them brings him a whopping €5,000 to €10,000 per month on top of his MEP salary. Ciocca’s outside income puts him in the list of the top 30 MEPs with highest income from side jobs in the entire Parliament. Yet his declaration simply says he is employed as a “libero professionista” which roughly translates as a freelancer. An old CV of the MEP shows he has been registered as an expert in health and safety during construction projects.

Has Ciocca kept this as a side job as an MEP? Corporate Europe Observatory contacted Ciocca asking what activities exactly he provides as a freelancer and even more importantly which clients he works for, but has received no reply.

Ciocca has a chequered past in the Italian courts. On at least two occasions there were concerns that he was receiving professional real estate deals due to his role as regional councillor for Lega (one involving the Calabrian 'Ndràngheta mafia) but neither case was taken forward. He was, however, sentenced for expenses fraud at the regional level together with another local politician and told to pay back over €20,000 for undue claims which included luxurious meals and inexplicably high bills for stationery. Ciocca appealed the sentence which was then lowered.


Lega’s friends in big business

Lega’s MEPs often criticise the EU for its relationship with financial lobbies. For instance in 2018 Mara Bizzotto, who took over from Salvini as leader of Lega in the European Parliament and Vice-Chair of ENF, constantly criticises “this Europe, a slave to banks and finance that is massacring our country, our businesses and Italian citizens”.

Yet nationally, it seems Lega nurtures its own close working relationships with specific business lobbies. For example Vincenzo Boccia, President of Confindustria, the association of Italian employers (the Italian chapter of EU corporate lobby group BusinessEurope) has publicly declared: “In this government we strongly believe in Lega”. Boccia went on to say there is “a historical relationship of many of our entrepreneurs with the governors of the League in Veneto, in Lombardy and in Friuli Venezia Giulia”. Confindustria clearly expects this relationship to be translated to the national level.

Former Italian Minister Carlo Calenda described this as the first time the employers’ association has announced public support for one specific political party and that, “Confindustria is officially a part of Lega”. Boccia later denied that his comments were an endorsement. While in public Salvini at times criticises Confindustria, Italian newspapers report that the employers’ association finds it easier to reach Lega than its governing coalition partner, the 5 Star Movement.

Confindustria’s access to Lega seems also to be working at the EU level. MEP Ciocca quite helpfully posts his agenda on his website, which show at least seven meetings with the employers association (and subsidiaries such as Assolombarda and FarmIndustria) since September 2017 (data checked on 15 April 2019). As far as Corporate Europe Observatory could ascertain, there were no meetings with Italian trade unions.


Conflicts of interest and Russian business

Conflicts of interest are also a question for Lega. Take for instance Gianluca Savoini, an ally of Salvini without an official title but who brags of participating in meetings between Lega, already in government, and Russia’s national security council. Savoini, alongside Claudio d'Amico, a senior foreign policy adviser to Lega, own a company based in Russia, Orion LLC. In a recent article Global Witness noted this as a clear conflict of interest for Italian politics.

Gianluca Savoini is an ally of Salvini without an official title but who brags of participating in meetings between Lega, already in government, and Russia’s national security council

Orion is not Savoini’s only interest: he also runs a think-tank called Lombardy-Russian Cultural Association. It is unclear who funds this think tank but its Honorary President is Alexey Komov, a man close to Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev (see National Rassemblement section), and member of the extreme World Congress of Families (WCF). SidenoteWCF is an anti-LGBT rights and anti-abortion network of organisations backed by ultra-conservative US, Russian and European politicians, which OpenDemocracy has exposed as having been pumping money into undisclosed far-right parties in Europe. WCF’s latest convention was held in Verona, Italy attended by both Salvini and Lorenzo Fontana, former MEP and a current Italian Minister. Komov attended and spoke at the Lega conference that elected Salvini as leader.

Savoini was allegedly also at the centre of accusations that there had been negotiations with the Russian Government to funnel money into Lega’s European Parliament campaign. L'Espresso journalists reported in February 2019 that Lega was offered a deal for Rosneft, a Russian oil company, to sell at least three million tons of diesel to Italian multinational ENI. The diesel would be sold with a four per cent discount and the extra money funnelled to Lega. The journalists claim that under this arrangement “Lega would receive at least 250 thousand dollars a month for one year – 3 million euro in total”, meant to be used for the European Parliament elections.

L’Espresso reporters do not know whether the deal was finalised. Salvini’s spokesperson has called the story a fantasy and threatened to sue the newspaper. Rosneft also threatened to sue.

Lega has a public history of cooperating with Putin’s Government: in 2017 Lega signed a cooperation agreement with Putin’s party and it also defends the end of EU sanctions on Russia which followed the annexation of Crimea.

BOX 4: Steve Bannon’s Movement

Lega is one of the few parties in Europe that has publicly “joined” the group created by discredited Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon. A lot has been written about Bannon’s European project which, according to him, is meant to “lead a right-wing populist revolt across the continent” ahead of the 2019 European Parliament elections. To do so, he has used the legal entity called ‘The Movement’, set up in Brussels SidenoteOfficial documents show that Modrikamen set up the foundation to, among other things, push anti-Islam views but also “free enterprise” and “a scientific and non-dogmatic approach to climate phenomena”. in 2017 by Mischaël Modrikamen, a former corporate lawyer who now runs the marginal Belgian Islamophobic party Parti Populaire (no elected MEPs).This is also not the first time that Modrikamen has attempted to create a vehicle to bring together these nationalist parties. Previously he was the Vice-President of the Alliance for Direct Democracy in Europe, a European party of nationalists (including UKIP and AfD MEPs) which was caught up in questions over the misuse of EU funding (see UKIP section). Modrikamen sued and lost against the journalists who first revealed the group’s practices.

Bannon has promised to unite all the nationalistic right wing parties to fight the EU in these elections. Yet almost a year later not much visible has happened: he had promised a big Brussels conference in January with over 20 parties, but that never took place. Later on, he promised it “for late March or early May”, yet it still hasn’t happened.

So far only Lega, Fratelli d’Italia and the Dutch PVV have fully endorsed the project. Most parties do not want to support him publicly. For many, to do so would break their country’s electoral rules which ban accepting foreign support. According to national electoral laws, only Danish, Swedish, Italian, and Dutch parties could receive support from the Movement, but the Danish and Swedish parties have so far refused to work with Bannon.

It is unclear how the foundation is financed. It also remains unclear what if anything is going on below the surface in terms of channelling funding and political campaigning advice.

Salvini’s Lega: moving on from corruption?

As previously mentioned, Salvini took over Lega’s leadership in the wake of the scandal when Lega’s previous leader Umberto Bossi was found to have cheated the Italian state out of €49 million euros, partly used by the party and partly by his own family. Salvini tried hard to distance himself in public from the corruption scandal, promising to re-vamp the party as investigations into Bossi were still ongoing. But documents seen by L'Espresso journalists showed that Salvini, likely knowingly, used money that Bossi had illegally taken from the state. In 2018 courts ordered that the full €49 million should be seized back from Lega but the prosecutors could not find the money in Lega, raising doubts whether it had been shifted out of the country to avoid seizure. Since then the party has made an agreement with the prosecutors to pay back the money, but in instalments which will take over 80 years to pay. That means, the courts won’t scan Lega’s accounts.

Corruption stories continue to dog Lega. In May 2019 a Lega Under-secretary for Transport was forced to resign by the Italian Prime Minister (against Salvini’s wishes) after accusations that he taken bribes to push renewable energy by a businessman linked to the Sicilian mafia.

It appears that Lega is merely using the language of those critical of the enormous power of big business and vested interests. At the same time business lobbies seem to see Lega politicians as a gateway to power, while the party’s MEPs and political allies have personal interests that raise questions about their independence. Meanwhile wherever Lega goes, corruption scandals seem to follow.

BOX 5: Party funding rules in the EU

Party financing in the EU is a messy puzzle of national and EU level rules. The European Parliament elections, for instance, are actually 28 national elections run simultaneously. Hence national electoral financing rules apply, but these rules vary widely within the EU: from whether they allow financing from foreign entities (eg the Netherlands and Italy do), to whether corporate donations are permissible (Austria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Italy).

The Italian case is particularly serious as, from 2014 to 2017, the country phased out public financing for political campaigns, leaving parties entirely dependent on private donations, including those from companies. As Italian anti-corruption NGO Riparte Il Futuro put it, there is now a risk “that the political forces are above all dependent on funding from companies, corporations and individuals who may want to influence their activities, expect something in exchange for their financial support”.

And while most countries in the EU (yet not all) require some sort of auditing or control for campaign finances, the format is incredibly varied. In almost all countries it is not possible to know in real time who is financing electoral campaigns or even individual candidates.

National rules are still just one side of this discussion. There are also European level political parties and associated political foundations. Throughout this text we have enumerated many instances of funding fraud, mis-spending or parties getting money that don’t meet the requirements for this type of funding, including from the defunct ADDE and IDDE (see UKIP section).

Most of these pan-European parties depend on EU financing but it is important to note that the EU rules require that at least 10 per cent of the entire budget must be made up of the parties’ own sources (previously 15 per cent). The rules require that these bodies publish the names of all those who donate over €500.

Using this published information, journalists at Follow the Money have found that donations direct to European political parties has been steadily growing. These were not just private donations; many companies seem to be investing in EU parties. Follow the Money has cleaned and published the entire dataset of donations and expenditures which anyone, particularly journalists, can use to scrutinise these bodies.

As EU politics becomes increasingly contentious, it is important to ensure transparency and strict rules for political finance in order to limit the power that money has in politics.

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