‘Squalid threats’: Italy’s Salvini hits out at EU chief over election comment

The anti-immigrant League leader condemned EU chief Ursula von der Leyen on Friday after she said the bloc had "tools" to manage trouble from Rome if his alliance wins Sunday’s elections.

Lega leader Matteo Salvini delivers a speech on stage on September 22, 2022 during a joint rally of Italy's right-wing parties Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d'Italia, FdI), the League (Lega) and Forza Italia at Piazza del Popolo in Rome.
Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy's anti-immigrant League, hit out at Ursula von der Leyen after she expressed concern over Sunday's elections. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

The eurosceptic anti-immigration League leader demanded the European Commission president resign or, at the very least, apologise for what he described as “squalid threats”. 

During an event in the United States on Thursday, von der Leyen was asked if she had any concerns about the Italian elections, which Salvini’s coalition partner, far-right leader Giorgia Meloni, is currently tipped to win.

READ ALSO: Outcry in Italy after Berlusconi defends Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

“My approach is that whatever democratic government is willing to work with us, we’re working together,” she said.

She then added: “We’ll see. If things go in a difficult direction – I’ve spoken about Hungary and Poland – we have tools.”

Salvini, whose League party currently risks losing swathes of supporters to Meloni, responded with outrage. “What is that, a threat? Shameful arrogance. Respect the free, democratic and sovereign vote of the Italian people!” he tweeted.

Speaking to Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, he later said that von der Leyen should “apologise, or she should resign”.

League leader Matteo Salvini (L) and Fratelli d’Italia leader Giorgia Meloni are set to form a government together following the election. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP

Antonio Tajani, a member of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party – which is also part of Meloni’s right-wing coalition – also condemned the EU chief for her “interference”.

READ ALSO: Giorgia Meloni’s party will likely win the elections – but will it last?

In Brussels, von der Leyen’s spokesman, Eric Mamer, highlighted the chief’s willingness to work with whoever wins Sunday’s elections.

“It is absolutely clear that the president did not intervene in the Italian elections,” he told reporters. “When she made reference to tools, she specifically referred to procedures under way in other EU countries.”

The EU has recently accused both Hungary and Poland of flouting the EU rule of law, with the Commission proposing to suspend 7.5 billion euros in financing for Budapest.

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Italy’s government to continue sending weapons to Ukraine in 2023

Italy's new government issued a decree on Thursday to continue sending weapons to Ukraine through 2023, continuing the previous administration's policy of support to Kyiv.

Italy's government to continue sending weapons to Ukraine in 2023

The decree extends to December 31, 2023 an existing authorisation for “the transfer of military means, materials and equipment to the government authorities of Ukraine,” according to a government statement.

Since taking office in October, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has repeatedly voiced her support for Kyiv while underlying the importance of the Atlantic alliance.

In her first speech to parliament, the leader of the Brothers of Italy party pledged to “continue to be a reliable partner of NATO in supporting Ukraine.”

Her predecessor Mario Draghi was a staunch supporter of Kyiv, but the issue of sending arms to Ukraine split the biggest party in parliament during his coalition government, the Five Star Movement.

That friction led to the early elections that brought Meloni to power.

Parliament now has 60 days to vote the decree into law.

READ ALSO: Outcry in Italy after Berlusconi defends Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

Despite Meloni’s efforts to reassure her Western allies of Italy’s support for the EU’s and NATO’s Ukraine strategy, including sanctions on Russia, the close ties to Russia of her two coalition partners have come under scrutiny.

Both Matteo Salvini of the League party and former premier Silvio Berlusconi, who leads Forza Italia, have long enjoyed warm relations with Russia.

In October, an audio tape of Berlusconi was leaked to the media in which the former premier described how he had received a birthday present of vodka from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In the tape, he also expressed concerns about sending weapons and cash to Kyiv and appeared to blame the war on Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

Berlusconi later issued a statement saying his personal position on Ukraine “does not deviate” from that of Italy and the EU.

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Salvini, too, has come under fire for his relations with Moscow, including a report that he dined with Russia’s ambassador to Rome just days after that country’s invasion of Ukraine.

Salvini, who has criticised EU sanctions as ineffective, has long admired Putin, even wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the Russian leader’s face.