January’s elections in the wealthy Northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna saw former MEP Elly Schlein secure 22.098 votes, making her the top vote-getter in a part of Italy that is widely regarded as the cradle of the country’s radical leftist politics. As a result of her victory, Schlein was offered a top position in Rome with the centre-left Democratic Party, but has instead opted to remain in her region and work alongside Emilia-Romagna’s President Stefano Bonaccini.
Part of her reasoning for remaining on the local scene has to do with the current social and political climate in Italy. The Italian left has taken a battering in recent years and needs new faces that could attract disillusioned voters. The Democratic Party, or PD as it’s known in Italian, must be able to reconnect with average citizens again – an issue that has plagued the left since the fall of the centre-left government of former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in December 2016.
While in Bologna following recent elections in the Northern Italian region of Emili-Romagna, New Europe’s Federico Grandesso spoke in an exclusive interview with former-MEP and the top vote-getter in the polls, Elly Schlein, about both the future and the challenges of the wealthy region’s leftist coalition.
Federico Grandesso (FG): One of the main challenges for the Italian left is the migration crisis. Matteo Salvini scores very high on this issue with most voters, how can you formulate a counter argument that will appeal to the electorate?
Elly Schlein (ES): The big challenge for me will be to show our citizens that I am honest. As I learned very well in Brussels, real hypocrisy comes from Lega (the leading anti-establishment conservative party in Italy and Matteo Salvini. It is important to stress that Lega signed the worst regulations on migration management when in 2003 the Dublin Treaty, which blocked thousands of asylum applicants in Italy, was approved by Lega when it was governing with (former Prime Minster) Silvio Berlusconi. After that, I never saw them during the next 22 negotiation meetings in Brussels about this very important reform on immigration. They didn’t attend the sessions and when there was a vote, they abstained. Another problem for me then is the Bossi-Fini law, which Lega also signed. This basically prevents any immigrant to enter legally into Italy. I think we should also cancel the security decrees that were created last year by Salvini when he was interior minister. From time to time, Lega manages the chaos they created, but now it is up to us to give a different answer to these complex problems. We have to tackle the migration problems and we need solutions at all political levels.
FG: You saw the number of people that the Sardine Movement (a leftist flash mob that appeared in 2019 to protest Salvini and Lega) that appeared in Italy’s public squares over the last several months, what is your feeling about the phenomenon? In those various gatherings, there were many citizens that were ready to fight for a brand of politics.
ES: This movement is marvelous because they follow the basic values of our constitution and in the spirit of anti-Fascism and anti-racism, but also in solidarity with the anti-sexist movement and a call for a return to a soberer and better use of language that is less aggressive. I think this has already changed the political atmosphere. We should thank them (the Sardines) because we have a very higher number of voters that came from or who were inspired by that movement.
FG: After your experience in Brussels as a MEP, which European themes are you going to focus on in your new role?
ES: This Emilia-Romagna region has an extraordinary pro-EU outlook. The proof of that is that the region has used EU structural funds as well as anywhere else. We hope to do even better in the future. We have to be conscious that there are some global challenges that we can’t resolve inside our borders, the climatic crisis for example. It’s a positive sign that the EU’s focus is now on the Green New Deal. A few years ago there was very little discussion about that topic. It’s important to have a commitment from the Commission, but this is not enough. In Emilia-Romagna we would like to see a bigger engagement from the EU. Our region must carry out an ambitious climate pact that is needed at the EU level. The pact should align all of the region’s policies until 2030, particularly on sustainable development, which was agreed upon at the United Nations in 2015. Our objective is to discuss how to cut carbon emissions in this region and to boost renewable sources. We have a massive tree planting plan that would see 4.5 million trees planted all over the region and another initiative for free public transport for people who are under 18. President Bonaccini has committed to seeing that these initiatives become reality.
FG: An old Italian problem is that a massive number of young well-educated Italians leave for other countries to find better job. How to tackle this problem?
ES: To solve this issue. we need to invest on research and innovation. Here, for example, there will be important investments to open calculation centres. When they become operational, we will become the fifth largest area in world for calculation capacity. R&D for our country is a key issue and we need to do more. This is the message that is coming also from the major economic powers that Italy deals with. Theses are crucial investments that will allow Italy to be at the forefront of a major technological, demographic, and climatic. Our region has the responsibility to build a new model for development that could be sustainable from a social and environmental point of view. About Italy’s long-standing brain drain phenomenon, as a fervent and staunch European Federalist, I think it’s good to search for professional experience abroad, but it doesn’t have to be a choice that was forced by negative circumstances.