Beleaguered British Prime Minister Theresa May received an unexpected voice of support Sunday when Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini accused the European Union of trying to “swindle” Britain over Brexit.
May’s struggle to find a Brexit proposal that satisfies her party and negotiators in Brussels has left her government paralysed and facing the prospect of Britain crashing out of the world’s largest trading bloc next year without a deal.
Salvini, leader of the far-right, eurosceptic Lega, is currently the most powerful politician in Italy, one of the founding members of the European Union, which is locked in a tense standoff with Britain over the terms of its departure.
But he broke ranks with his European partners in an interview with Britain’s Sunday Times, delivering a series of extraordinary broadsides on the bloc and expressing support for May’s position.
In the interview, Salvini urged May to take a tougher stance in her negotiations with the EU. “My experience in the European parliament tells me you either impose yourself or they swindle you,” he said.
Salvini said the European Union was trying to punish the UK for voting to leave. “There is no objectivity or good faith from the European side,” he said, adding that his government would support May in the talks, and that he hoped London would get a good deal.
“I hope the negotiations end well for the UK to serve as an example of the people coming out on top of the EU,” he said.
While the comments were the most critical yet of the EU’s handling of Brexit from a leading European politician, they’re unlikely to significantly help May in her tense dealings with Brussels. Teresa Coratella, program manager in the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Rome office, said Salvini’s comments reflected, more than anything, the eurosceptic politician’s strategy of keeping himself in the limelight through attacks on the European Union.
“His support for Brexit is pure anti-European and anti-establishment propaganda to stay in the news,” she said. “Accusing Brussels of bad [management of] the Brexit dossier is one of the tools he currently has.”
She said the Italian hardliner “wants to challenge and change Europe from the inside.” But his isolated position within the bloc meant his expressions of support would likely count for little.
“He knows he needs allies, as today he is isolated inside the decisional core of EU member states,” she said. “His allies could be Trump, Bannon or May, it doesn’t matter.”
With less than eight months until Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29, May is struggling to find a proposal for Britain’s future ties to the union that is acceptable to her party, or to EU negotiators. Her minority government faces a series of serious hurdles in getting a Brexit deal struck before the EU’s October deadline for agreeing a withdrawal treaty.
May must first strike a deal with European negotiators, who have already knocked back her plan on trade, then gain approval from her fractious Conservative party before putting it to a parliamentary vote.
READ: Everything you need to know about the Brexit crisis that could topple May
Reports have emerged that the government is stepping up its preparations for the possibility that no deal would be struck, resulting in the world’s fifth largest economy dropping out of the bloc with no trade agreement in place. British drug manufacturers are considering building stockpiles of medicines in case of shortages, and plans have reportedly been put in place for the army to assist with distributing food, fuel and medicine if shortages arise.
British public confidence in the prospects for Brexit is plummeting, according to recent polls. A Sky News poll released Monday showed that two-thirds of the public thought the country would get a bad deal, and half wanted the chance for another referendum to decide whether to leave with a deal, leave without, or remain in.
Presented a choice of three options — May’s plan, a no-deal Brexit, or remaining in the EU — 48 percent of respondents chose the latter, and just 13 percent supported the government’s deal.
May has steadfastly maintained there can be no second Brexit referendum, nor is the opposition Labour Party pushing for one, meaning that there’s no political movement towards another vote despite indications that the public appetite is there. British voters narrowly voted to leave by 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent in a divisive June 2016 referendum, with many “Leave” voters subsequently complaining they were lied to by pro-Brexit campaigners.
Cover image: Italys Interior Minister and deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini speaks during a joint press conference with Vice President of the Presidential Council of Libya, at the Viminale palace in Rome, on July 5, 2018. (ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)