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Outcry after Northern League youth group burns model of Laura Boldrini, Italy’s parliamentary speaker

House Speaker Laura Boldrini has demanded an apology from the far-right Northern League after a regional youth wing of the far-right party burned a model of her in a public bonfire.

Outcry after Northern League youth group burns model of Laura Boldrini, Italy’s parliamentary speaker
Laura Boldrini, the speaker of Italy's Chamber of Deputies. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

The figure was set alight on Thursday night in Busto Arsizio, a city near Milan in the north-western region of Lombardy, where it is traditional to hold a bonfire in the last week of January.

The dummy of Boldrini, president of Italy's lower house of parliament and part of the centre-left government that the Northern League hopes to defeat in an election in March, was placed in a model boat named the “Costa Discordia ONG”, a reference both to the Costa Concordia cruise ship that sank off the Italian coast in 2012 and to the NGO rescue boats that pick up migrants shipwrecked as they attempt to sail from North Africa to southern Italy.

A poster behind the model said that the ship would head to “Africa” on March 4th, the date of the upcoming election, and wouldn’t be coming back.

Boldrini, a vocal defender of women’s rights who has repeatedly come in for sexist abuse and threats of violence, called the incident a dangerous example of incitement.

“This shows that hate speech is never just speech, but turns into deplorable acts and can trigger an even more dangerous spiral,” she wrote on Facebook.

“It’s time for Matteo Salvini to apologize,” Boldrini said, referring to the national leader of the Northern League and its candidate for prime minister. “Not to me, he wouldn’t be capable of it. But at least to the citizens of Busto Arsizio and all Italians for the terrible impression he’s giving of our country.”

Others on the left joined Boldrini in condemning the burning, accusing the League of stoking a climate of hate in Italian politics. “Those who burn puppets remind us of those who burned books and why they did so,” tweeted Pietro Grasso, speaker of the senate and head of the left-wing Free and Equal movement.

The League, however, dismissed the burning as a harmless tradition.

“The fire isn’t intended as a form of protest,” insisted Francesco Enrico Speroni, local secretary of the League in Busto Arsizio. “Every year we light a bonfire in the square and burn models of political figures, including the mayor.”

Previous dummies have included Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, former PM Matteo Renzi and US President Donald Trump, Speroni said, without attracting protest.

Salvini nonetheless distanced himself from the incident, which he called a “slip-up”.

The national youth wing of the Northern League also denied involvement, saying that it opposed the government with ideas and not violence. Those responsible would be disciplined, it added.

The Busto Arsizio Northern League youth branch, which built the guy and published photos on social media, has since removed all references to the event from its Facebook page.

In parts of northern Italy, the last Thursday in January is the festival of Giobia or Gioeubia, when locals build a pyre and ceremonially burn wooden figures.

ITALIAN ELECTIONS

ANALYSIS: Italy’s hard right set to clash with EU allies over Russia

Italian election winner Giorgia Meloni may at first glance have much in common with ultra-conservative governments in fellow EU nations Poland and Hungary, but experts say that when it comes to real-world policy any alliance could soon run into limits.

ANALYSIS: Italy's hard right set to clash with EU allies over Russia

Reaction to Sunday’s strong result for Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party was muted from pillars of EU integration like Paris and Berlin, but Warsaw and Budapest were warm in their congratulations.

“We’ve never had greater need of friends sharing a vision of and a common approach to Europe,” the Hungarian government said, while from Poland came praise for Meloni’s “great victory”.

“Hungary and Poland are more than happy with this election, first because it relieves the pressure on their own countries in the EU, and second because it paves the way for a more united front,” said Yordan Bozhilov, director of the Bulgaria-based Sofia Security Forum think-tank.

READ ALSO: Polish PM hails far-right’s ‘great victory’ in Italian elections

The Italian election follows hard on the heels of a Swedish poll that also produced a surge for the extreme right.

But with the far right in power in one of the EU’s largest countries and founding members, Hungary and Poland could be far less isolated in their battles with Brussels over rule-of-law issues.

What’s more, Rome, Budapest and Warsaw are now set for alignment on social concerns, with anti-Islam, anti-abortion and anti-LGBT positions.

“Together we will defeat the cynical and pampered Eurocrats who are destroying the European Union, breaching treaties, destroying our civilisation and advancing the LGBT agenda!” Poland’s deputy agriculture minister Janusz Kowalski tweeted in a message congratulating Meloni on Monday.

Meloni also shares her prospective allies’ vision of a Christian, white Europe made up of sovereign nations.

EXPLAINED: What’s behind election success for Italy’s far right?

“Hungary and Poland are countries that want to change the EU from within, and they don’t hide it. So far they haven’t succeeded, but there will definitely be an attempt to create a Rome-Budapest-Warsaw axis,” said Tara Varma, director of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

But such parties’ demands have already moderated in recent years from full exit from the EU, “given the absolute cautionary tale that Brexit has been,” she added.

Instead, the axis could become “spoilers, the sand in the gears” in Brussels.

“One step forward, two steps back, they could prevent the EU making progress while continuing to benefit from joint funds,” Varma said.

– Splits over Russia –

 A front based on values could still founder when faced with today’s overriding concern of the war in Ukraine and EU relations with Russia.

While Meloni has so far matched Warsaw in declarations of support for Ukraine and for EU sanctions on Russia over its invasion of its neighbour, Hungary’s leader Viktor Orban – close to President Vladimir Putin – is
opposed.

“At some point, Meloni will have to choose between Poland and Hungary,” Varma predicted.

The Brothers of Italy leader is not expected to bend her position to match those of her junior coalition partners, Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini, who are friendlier to Moscow.

READ ALSO: Italy’s Meloni begins tricky government talks after election win

“Regarding foreign policy, as far as we know Meloni backs the sanctions against Russia and Brothers of Italy is closer to Poland’s PiS (governing party) than Hungary’s Fidesz,” said Hungarian analyst Patrik Szicherle.

Meloni has “sent the right messages on Ukraine,” said Martin Quencez of the German Marshall Fund, pointing out Italy’s critical relationship with the US as a reliable NATO ally.

Once elected prime minister, she “has every incentive to have good relations with Brussels, not to enter a pitched battle,” said Paolo Modugno, professor of Italian civilisation at Paris’ Sciences Po university.

Meloni “is very aware of the Italian public’s problems, their fear of inflation and the economic situation. What’s urgent for her is to manage the crisis, not to take ideological risks,” he added.

Analysts suggest that the incoming government’s choice of top ministers, especially in the finance and foreign ministries, will clearly signal how Meloni plans to position herself in Europe.

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