The Black Lobby Scandal

The scandal implicates the far-right Brothers of Italy party in dubious business and extremists. It's time we took notice.

Black Lobby Scandal Meloni Salvini Berlusconi
Giorgia Meloni, Matteo Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi. Photo: Atbc at Italian Wikipedia, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

On September 30, the Italian news website Fanpage released their first piece on what they called the Lobby nera, ‘Black lobby’. They had evidence that showed Carlo Fidanza, Member of the European Parliament with the far-right part Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia, FdI), discussing funding the mayoral campaign in Milan with laundered cash. That alleged crime aside, he was talking to Roberto Jonghi Lavarini, a well-known convicted fascist — making fascist salutes and racist jokes.

The timing couldn’t have been worse for Giorgia Melonis party. The elections were to be held at the following weekend. Fidanza suspended himself from his role as MEP and as a member of his party, saying he “never received any irregular funding,” and that “there is not and never had been any extremist, racist, or anti-Semitic attitude” in him. Instead, the affirmations in the video were simply “light-hearted.”

The public prosecutor will decide on this now — as it immediately opened an investigation into the events. Regardless, the image of fascist salutes remains difficult to digest in our current society.

A right wing on the rise?

Before the events surrounding the Black lobby, Brothers of Italy were no doubt in a festive mood. The party was in full swing. Already in May, the FdI overtook the center-left Democratic Party (PD) in polls, to reach Matteo Salvini’s Lega, Italy’s most popular party. Having collected only 6.4% of the vote in 2019’s European elections, this was quite an achievement.

As a result, Italians were bombarded by headlines in June this year that claimed that “Italy has become the right-wing’s paradise.” That might seem unfair — as other countries in Europe, such as Poland and Hungary, where an increasingly conservative politics with racist overtones seems to prevail — have strong and influential right-wing governments. Yet, in Italy the rise of the FdI has been followed by extreme right-wing organizations such as Forza Nuova, who have been involved in recent violence at demonstrations against the Green Pass. Other groups, like Casa Pound — one of the most famous neo-fascist groups in Italy, as perhaps the largest — have also seen increases in support.

Meanwhile, beyond the big headlines, there are occasional stories of the police uncovering neo-fascist or neo-Nazi websites, or groups of young people organizing supremacist meetings to plan actions of violence against migrants. Violence and hate are the key features of these groups — and it cannot be accepted that they familiarize with political parties of any kind. Unfortunately, the Black lobby scandal reveals the risk of a scenario in which right-wing parliamentary parties cooperate with extremist figures and organizations.

In this month’s regional elections, FdI did not do as well as hoped, no doubt in part due to the emergence of this scandal — something which the party claims was timed to influence their results. Instead, the center-left PD won in many key cities across Italy, just as the social democrats won in Germany. Yet, the momentum perhaps is still with the right and its links to extremist organizations remain a matter of concern.

History is a good teacher, if we are prepared to learn

Right-wing parties — Fratelli d’Italia, but also the League — have always denied having a fascist sentiment, or fascist connections. Yet, a big part of the Italian right seems to have an ongoing dialogue with the dubious and dangerous political factions. Unfortunately, this is not something unprecedented.

In 2019, Report, an Italian political TV program, undertook an investigation into FdI’s and Giorgia Meloni’s relationship with Steve Bannon. Bannon, once Donald Trump’s media strategist, is the head of The Movement, a Brussels-based right-wing populist organization promoting right-wing and conservative nationalist groups across Europe. Speaking of the FdI, Bannon affirmed a powerful sentence: “Put a reasonable face on right-wing populism, you get elected.”

When asked if the FdI has neo-fascist heritage, Meloni answered that she wasn’t even born when fascism was alive, therefore the party could not be fascist. This sentence shows the impasse in this matter: Giorgia Meloni finds it hard to call herself an anti-fascist and, even when she does, it doesn’t sound true. Until the 1990s, Meloni — along with Carlo Fidanza, Roberto Jonghi Lavarini, and many other FdI politicians — was a member of the post-fascist Italian Social Movement (Movimento Sociale Italiano, MSI), a group whose historical links to fascism are well-known.

In Italy, the Constitution forbids the re-creation of a fascist party, therefore Meloni’s answer seems inevitable. Yet, crucially, it should alert us to problems of this vague and masked interest towards fascism: if we let people forget about history, we’re at risk of making the same mistakes. To forget history is to perceive everything as new — even those things that take inspiration from and institutionally develop from the past.

Ultimately, the result of this process is something both Meloni and Salvini are keen to cultivate. According to analyses done by Report, Meloni’s and Salvini’s followers had retweeted over 500,000 contents from fake news websites. Disinformation about COVID-19 as much as about their own history and relationships, is crucial to these parties’ communication strategies.

Dodgy deals and the value of misinformation

Brothers of Italy is not the only right-wing party to have been caught up in illicit funding scandals in recent years. In 2019, Matteo Salvini and his spokesperson, Gianluca Savoini, headed to Moscow on businesses. That alleged business, according to one investigation, was to exchange cash for Lega for an oil deal between an Italian company and the Russian state. To date, the trial against Savoini continues.

Both the League’s and FdI’s dodgy deals show how close our politics are to dubious and dangerous characters. Society needs to be aware that sometimes communication can be persuasive but not transparent. Politicians who speak in a vague way when asked about burning issues, while blatantly shout in the streets when talking about what they believe in, they are not fully sincere. Avoiding the past and clinging to the present — this is not the kind of politics on which a country should be built.

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