Italy’s hard-line interior minister said Wednesday that being called a populist was “a compliment” and claimed recent elections that brought right-wing, anti-immigrant parties to power were a sign European liberalism had failed.
In his first international TV interview since he became a lightning rod for criticism over Italy’s treatment of migrants, Matteo Salvini told CNN he relished his role as an outsider and praised the populist wave sweeping across Europe.
“(Populist) is used as an insult, but for me it is a compliment,” Salvini, also Italy’s deputy prime minister, told CNN from the Interior Ministry. “Listening to the people, being a minister that goes to the cities, to the squares, to the stations, to the hospitals, for me is a duty and a pleasure.”
Salvini said that if there was a lesson to be learned from Brexit and recent elections in Italy and Austria, which saw populist and right-wing parties score major victories, it was that “people want identity, security, and jobs.”
“There is a beautiful reaction of the people against the dictatorship of finance, (which) wants out of control immigration,” he added.
Salvini, the 45-year-old leader of the League party – the junior partner in Italy’s new anti-establishment coalition government – has taken a hard line on immigration since entering office.
In recent weeks he has closed Italy’s ports to foreign-flagged ships that have rescued migrants from the Mediterranean Sea and provoked outrage by announcing plans to conduct a census of Italy’s Roma ethnic group.
His radical stance has ignited a war of words between Europe’s political leaders over who should shoulder the burden of migrants trying to reach the continent.
On Wednesday, he criticized his European Union counterparts for failing to act on the crisis, a day before leaders gather once again to discuss the bloc’s approach to migration.
Salvini said Italy had done “more in the last couple of months than years of talk” by European leaders had achieved on the immigration issue.
He also took aim at French President Emmanuel Macron, who criticized Salvini’s rejection of migrant ships as cynical and irresponsible this month, according to Reuters.
“Macron talks about values, but he doesn’t recognize the values itself, and therefore they have no lessons to give to Italy,” Salvini told CNN.
“With nice words we never obtained anything. In this month of government with our actions, we managed to be listened to – the Spanish intervened, Malta must intervene, and so do the French, the German, the Dutch. … It’s clear that we need a different kind of politics,” Salvini said.
“We need to revisit the Dublin rules, we need to invest in Africa. But I think we obtained more in this month than in the previous six years of chatter,” he added.
EU countries are bound by the Dublin Regulation, which requires asylum seekers to be registered in the first European country they enter – regardless of whether they entered legally or otherwise. The regulation has been criticized by Italy and Greece, the landing points for many immigrants.
While Salvini has come under fire for his immigration stance, he has not suffered political fallout back home. Many Italians are exasperated by Europe’s fractured response to the crisis, and polls have shown a majority of Italians support the new government’s hard-line migration policy.
Salvini told CNN on Wednesday that other European countries needed to do more to help but said he was optimistic about finding a solution to the immigration issue.
“I am tired of … the dead on the bottom of the Mediterranean, and that other countries are not doing what Italy has done over the last years. Numbers speak – none of the other European countries did even half of what Italy did. (German Chancellor Angela) Merkel said Italy cannot be left alone. The Spanish and French, everyone speaks of generosity – let them put that in practice.”
He said Italy’s objective was to stay in Europe, with “changing some of the rules to the advantage of Italian citizens.”
The new interior minister added: “Europe was born as a good project. I would like it to go back to the identity of the European Community, a community of equals that respect each other, that respect each state’s sovereignty.”
Salvini said Europe needed to strike deals with the countries from where migrants originate, describing such a setup as less costly than hosting migrants in reception centers on the continent.
“Nobody has a magic wand – the objective here is to have fewer landings than last years, because the more we reduce them, we will work better on the problem,” he said.
Salvini’s approach to redirect migrant arrivals appears to being paying off after Malta agreed Tuesday to take in hundreds who had been stranded on the German rescue vessel Lifeline for nearly a week.
Both Italy and Malta had initially closed their ports to the boat, carrying 233 people who had been rescued Thursday off Libya’s coast.
It was the third instance this month of a rescue ship being forced to drift for days in the Mediterranean as states wrangled over responsibility. After more than a week at sea earlier this month, the Aquarius, which was carrying more than 600 migrants, eventually went to Spain after Salvini refused to allow the ship to dock.
As conditions on board Lifeline deteriorated and the weather worsened, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat relented. Muscat said the ship will be impounded and migrants sent to seven EU countries, including Malta, Italy, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Ireland.
Earlier in the week, Italian authorities allowed 108 people rescued by the Danish cargo ship Alexander Maersk to disembark in Sicily after a four-day standoff. It remains unclear why the Alexander Maersk was allowed to dock in an Italian port while access was still being denied to Lifeline.
CNN’s Melissa Bell and Saskya Vandoorne reported from Rome, and Lauren Said-Moorhouse wrote from London. CNN’s Sheena McKenzie contributed to this report.