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.


‘We hoped for better’: How Italy’s government has floundered on migration

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has admitted she had hoped to do "better" on controlling irregular migration, which has surged since her party won historic elections a year ago.

‘We hoped for better’: How Italy’s government has floundered on migration

Having come to power on pledges to curb mass migration, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party has since enacted a series of policies which have not stopped a soaring number of sea arrivals in 2023.

“Clearly we hoped for better on immigration, where we worked so hard,” she said in an interview marking the win, broadcast late Saturday on the TG1 channel.

“The results are not what we hoped to see. It is certainly a very complex problem, but I’m sure we’ll get to the bottom of it.”

Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy party was elected in large part on a promise to reduce mass migration into Italy.

But the number of people arriving on boats from North Africa has instead surged, with more than 130,000 recorded by the interior ministry so far this year – up from 70,000 in the same period of 2022.

EXPLAINED: What’s behind Italy’s soaring number of migrant arrivals?

After 8,500 people arrived on the tiny island of Lampedusa in just three days earlier this month, Meloni demanded the European Union do more to help relieve the pressure.

Brussels agreed to intensify existing efforts, and this week said it would start to release money to Tunisia – from where many of the boats leave – under a pact aimed at stemming irregular migration from the country.

Blaming Germany

But Meloni’s main coalition partner, Matteo Salvini of the anti-immigration League party, has been dismissive of EU efforts to manage the surge of arrivals that he dubbed an “act of war”.

The League this weekend also condemned Germany for funding an NGO conducting at-sea rescues in the Mediterranean, saying it represented “very serious interference” in Italian affairs.

Defence Minister Guido Crosetto, a member of Meloni’s party, weighed in on Sunday, telling La Stampa newspaper the move put Italy “in difficulty”.

“If Germany cared about the fate of people in difficulty and really wanted to help us save lives, they could help… (with plans) to seriously combat criminals who traffic people,” he added in a statement on Sunday evening.

IN NUMBERS: Five graphs to understand migration to Italy

Several charity rescue ships operate in the Central Mediterranean, the world’s deadliest sea crossing for migrants, although they only pick up around five percent of arrivals to Italy, according to Crosetto.

The German foreign office confirmed it was providing between 400,000 euros and 800,000 euros each to two projects, “for the support on land in Italy of people rescued at sea and an NGO project for sea-rescue operations”.

People gather outside the migrant reception centre on Lampedusa, south of Sicily, on August 14th 2023. The island has recently struggled to cope with a large number of sea arrivals.

People gather outside the migrant reception centre on Lampedusa, south of Sicily, on August 14th 2023. The island has recently struggled to cope with a large number of sea arrivals. Photo by Alessandro Serranò / AFP

‘Protection money’

While interior minister in a previous government in 2019, Salvini blocked several charity ships from disembarking rescued migrants in Italy, a move that saw him prosecuted in Sicily on charges of kidnapping.

Since taking office in October, Meloni’s government has restricted the activities of the ships, which it accuses of encouraging migrants, while vowing to clamp down on people smugglers.

In April, weeks after more than 90 migrants died in a shipwreck near the town of Cutro on the coast of Calabria, it declared a six-month migration ‘state of emergency’, allocating 5 million euros to address the situation.

This was followed in May by the passage of the Cutro decree, which all but eliminated Italy’s special protection status for certain categories of asylum seekers and introduced harsher sentences for traffickers.

Agriculture Minister Francesco Lollobrigida sparked controversy at the time by saying Italy was facing “ethnic substitution” as a result of migration – comments opposition leader Elly Schlein dismissed as “disgusting” and as having “the flavour of white supremacism”.

Most recently, the government has sought to boost repatriation of arrivals ineligible for asylum, including by building new detention centres and extending the time migrants can be held there.

It emerged this week it would also be requiring migrants awaiting a decision on asylum to pay a deposit of 5,000 euros or be sent to a detention centre, prompting accusations the state was charging “protection money”.

The move was an “inhuman” gesture that unfairly targets “those fleeing famine and war,” parliamentarian Riccardo Magi of the +Europa party told reporters.

The centre-left Democratic Party said earlier this week that “on immigration, the Italian right has failed”.

“It continues on a path that is demagogic and consciously cynical, but above all totally ineffective both in the respect and safeguarding of human rights, and for the protection of Italy’s interests,” it said in a note.

The criticism of Germany comes after Berlin temporarily stopped accepting migrants living in Italy, after Rome itself suspended EU rules governing the distribution of migrants.