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Matteo Salvini, leader of the League and deputy prime minister (©Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

Reggio Calabria sits close to the southernmost end of the Italian peninsula. Overlooking the Strait of Messina, this city of about 180,000 people has a closer affinity, not least in its dialect, with eastern Sicily than the rest of Calabria. This is Italy’s deepest Mezzogiorno — 250 miles further south than Eboli, the place where “Christ stopped”, in Carlo Levi’s autobiographical account of internal political exile in fascist Italy.

A political laboratory within the political laboratory of the West that is Italy, Reggio staged one of the first “populist” challenges to Italy’s post-war political system. In 1970, the city revolted after the government decided that the seat of the newly-created regional administration for Calabria would be in Catanzaro rather than Reggio. The main parties and trade unions dismissed the revolt as populist and parochial. An eclectic group of local personalities — the Christian-Democrat mayor, a neo-fascist trade unionist, a veteran of the anti-fascist partisan struggle, and a coffee entrepreneur — joined forces and filled  the political vacuum left by the main parties’ disavowal of the protest. They ran Reggio for a few months in what began to look like a secessionist regime. To put an end to the revolt, the army was dispatched. A line of tanks descended on Reggio’s Lungomare, a one-mile promenade along the sea from which on the clearest days the most spectacular view of Mount Etna can be enjoyed (“Italy’s most beautiful kilometre” according to an almost certainly apocryphal Gabriele D’Annunzio quote).

Reggio is now at the frontline of the migrant crisis. The day I arrived, June 9,  a boat carrying nearly 250 migrants docked at the port. A few days earlier, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League, was sworn in as deputy prime minister and minister of the interior in Italy’s new government. He authorised the arrival of the boat, but announced that change was on the way.

Shortly after taking office, Salvini clashed with the mayor of Riace, who is one of the symbols of the politica dell’ accoglienza (the policy of welcoming migrants). Riace is the small village on the Ionian coast where the fifth-century BC Riace Bronzes, now the main attraction at Reggio’s museum, were found. The mayor is an old communist, Mimmo Lucana, who says he has never left Calabria. He believes that without immigration villages like Riace, with their rapidly declining population, have no future. His pro-immigration stance brought international accolades. But critics like Salvini maintain that these initiatives are just designed to generate publicity and attract the subsidies that come with the migrants. In an interview shortly after becoming minister of the interior, Salvini described Mr Lucano as “a zero”, marking his words with a hand gesture, the touching of the tips of the thumb and the index finger to create a circular shape, which means OK in English but zero in Italian.

There is much human sympathy for migrants in Calabria, but little support for current levels of immigration. There is also anger at what are regarded as the unfair portrayals of Calabrians as racist for their opposition to the flow of migrants. An opportunity for such portrayals arose tragically when, on June 4, a 29-year-old Malian immigrant, Sacko Soumalya,  was killed in a small village in the fertile plains to the north of Reggio.
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August 22nd, 2018
7:08 PM
"Italy should never have been part of the EU." No-one should be in the EU. The EU is a map drawn by the self-regarding founders, nothing more. It is the unfortunate fate of those statelets included in its boundaries to suffer under the rule of people with no interest in them.

July 21st, 2018
6:07 PM
"Saving Europeans isn't the Italians' job" Neither it is Europeans job to save Italians from their mediocrity! Who was ever dumb enough to allow Italy to be a founding member of the EU? Did they think that this time Italians would show fortitude, backbone and honesty? How mistaken! Italy should never have been part of the EU.

June 30th, 2018
12:06 PM
Those "in charge" of the European Project only have one goal, to stay "in charge". Consequently, they accept assistance from anyone offering support, without questioning the motivation. To attempt to build an empire from the roof down without even a copy of "Empire-Building For Dummies" to hand, seems foolhardy. We live in interesting times.

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