Italy is dividing the poor into deserving citizens and undeserving immigrants

Although Matteo Salvini’s pronouncements may cause more outrage, Luigi Di Maio of the Five Star Movement is playing along. 

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Italian policies are singling out immigrants. This was made clear by deputy prime minister and labour minister Luigi Di Maio of the Five Star Movement (M5S) on 21 September. “Clearly, it's impossible not to restrict awarding the citizenship income to Italian citizens, given the influx of illegal immigrants,” M5S leader told national radio political programme Radio Anch'io. In policy terms, this means that those who were born abroad, but hold a valid permit and may have contributed to the Italian economy for years, but are yet to become Italian citizens, are unable to apply for this income. 

The type of basic income Di Maio referred to has always been a commitment of M5S. Its current version, introduced by the previous centre-left government, goes under the name of reddito d'inclusione, or inclusion income. As well as Italian citizens, it is available to foreigners who have resided in Italy for at least two years. Claimants must hold official identification papers plus the accompanying permit of stay, but be struggling to find work. Reddito d'inclusione, also known as ReI, varies according to the claimant's family size, from just under €200 to more than €500 per month, with half the money to be used on basic goods only, such as nappies.

Di Maio's proposal is to increase this to €780 a month. Many analysts have argued that his party's near 33 per cent share of the national vote in the 4 March election was because of its backing for this form of universal help. The populist party, founded by the still active stand-up comedian Beppe Grillo, was successful throughout Italy, but especially in the chronically depressed south.

The coalition's partners League were quick to endorse the statement of Neapolitan Di Maio. League is the new brand of a secessionist party better known as Northern League (NL). The party leader, Matteo Salvini, also deputy prime minister – a job he shares with Di Maio – as well as the Interior minister, is widely recognised as Italy's strong man.

Hyperactive on social media, Salvini's declarations invariably make more noise than Di Maio's. He has made international headlines for suing a black politician who called the NL racist, for comparing African immigrants to slaves, pledging to restrict the opening hours of ethnic shops and allying with populist right-wing parties across Europe.

League received 17 per cent of the vote at the general election, almost half that of M5S. Yet the latest polls put the secessionist-come-nationalist party at more than 30 per cent, having overtaken Grillo's political creature by a considerable margin. Salvini's secret? “Italians first,” as he likes to trumpet every day. “It is a clarification that we welcome with great pleasure,” he said about Di Maio's intention to exclude foreigners from the basic income

The incumbent government's justification for this "clarification" is that there are newcomers holding no documentation. Rather than only exclude the latter, though, the proposed policy would suddenly exclude many foreigners who are legitimately in Italy, including EU citizens. A vaguely leftist party and an outright nationalist one are again using the same tactic: quickly blaming others for Italy's complex malaise.

Today's inward-looking politics' only parameter is this: are you from outside? The UN, the EU, neighbouring France – you name it, they've all been attacked by Di Maio, Salvini and company. Foreigners on Italian soil stem from elsewhere, and that's held against them as a fault. Institutions from newspapers to ratings agency are attacked if they fail to share this view. 

Even more ominously, this hostility extends to the so-called nomadi, or gypsies, of whom the Roma and Sinti are long established communities. The majority of them are Italian citizens. One of Salvini's most polemical proposals, a couple of months ago, was to put their names down on a national register

Eight decades after the leggi razziali – Mussolini's infamous racial laws – brown, black and ethnic-minority Italians are also having a hard time. Will this crisis inform a deeper debate on what it means to be Italian today? Probably not.

While many commentators predict an end to this government within a year, this can look like liberal wishful thinking. The reality seems different. The far-right in Italy not only has brilliantly transformed itself from secessionist into supremacist, but it is also being enabled by M5S, despite the latter's reputation as a “better party”. The two organisations, on the whole, have found a common rhythm, such as Di Maio making it clear reddito d'inclusione is only for Italians. Their encounter has been almost serendipituous, and now they love their Rome partnership. They are here to stay.