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Italy’s Salvini changes tack on EU in bid for center ground

Right-wing firebrand Matteo Salvini is softening his eurosceptic policies in a bid to capture the middle ground of Italian politics and eventually take centre-stage in Europe, even if it means disappointing his more radical supporters.

Setting a new course for his increasingly popular League party, in the last few days Salvini, who is deputy prime minister and interior minister, has scrapped its previous anti-euro position and vowed to reform the EU “from the inside”.

In a seismic shift, he even said Italy should forge a political “axis” with Germany, a country the League has always accused of commandeering the euro zone for its own benefit while condemning Italy to economic decline.

“The Franco-German axis is showing its limits, I will do everything I can to renew a new Rome-Berlin axis,” Salvini told foreign reporters in Rome this week.

He acknowledged that the last “axis” between the two countries, in World War Two, had not ended well.

Salvini, say League insiders and analysts, has a two-pronged strategy: to appeal to more moderate and undecided voters while carving out a pivotal role for himself on the European stage after elections to the European parliament in May.

When in 2013 Salvini became leader of what was then called the Northern League, it was reeling from a corruption scandal and was backed by less than 4 percent of Italians. His success since then has been remarkable.

Campaigning on a fiercely anti-migrant and anti-euro platform, he attracted voters who resented high unemployment, stagnant wages and uncontrolled immigration from Africa, while transforming the party from a regional to a national force.

The League took 17 percent of the vote in March elections to become the largest party in a centre-right bloc which Salvini then abandoned to form a government in June with the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement.

The League is now Italy’s largest party with more than 30 percent support in opinion polls.

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