ROME – Europeans head to the polls May 23-26 to elect a new European Parliament, which in turn will choose a new President of the European Commission – in effect, the closest thing Europe has to a leader. It’s happening at a moment when the future of Europe seems more up for grabs than at any time since the immediate post-war era.
Recent events in Rome seemingly capture the basic options on offer – which, of course, have parallels to the political situation in the U.S. as the 2020 race begins to heat up.
On the one hand, two events on Monday left some observers speculating about the possibility of a Catholic-progressive alliance as an alternative to the rise of right-wing nationalism.
Monday afternoon, Mayor Domenico “Mimmo” Lucano of the tiny southern Italian town of Riace, population 2,300, was given a hero’s welcome at Rome’s La Sapienza University, where he had been invited to speak on co-existence.
Despite the small size of his town, Lucano has become a national and international celebrity for what’s known as the “Riace Model” amid Europe’s migration crisis. Beginning ten years ago, Lucano invited roughly 450 migrants and refugees to settle in Riace alongside the original 1,800 inhabitants and they’ve made a go of it, creating a striking example of welcome and integration.
However, Lucano has also faced investigations and indictments, including a charge of arranging false marriage licenses to help migrants obtain Italian citizenship.
As his appearance at La Sapienza neared, a far-right anti-immigrant group called Forza Nuova announced it would try to block him from entering. The publicity backfired, as a huge crowd composed mostly of left-leaning youth showed up to shower Lucano with Bernie Sanders-style affection.
At the same time, roughly a ten-minute walk away, a press conference was taking place at a building occupied since 2013 by roughly 450 squatters, both Italians and foreigners, all of whom have no place else to go. It’s supported by an urban activist group called “Spin Time,” which runs a theatre there, a meeting center, a restaurant, even a tavern and lab for craft beers.
Recently, the Italian electric company objected to what it says are roughly $340,000 in unpaid utility bills at the site, and on May 6 technicians sealed off the counters to stop the flow of current. That left residents without power until Saturday, when Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, who directs the pope’s personal charitable activity, reportedly climbed down a manhole, broke the seals and turned the lights back on.
On Monday, Spin Time held a press conference at the building site and announced that it would present Krajewski with honorary membership cards in the group for himself and Pope Francis.
The juxtaposition of Lucano and Krajewski both making waves at the same moment for challenging “get tough” policies left many observers here musing on a revival of what was, once upon a time, a tacit compact between Catholics and communists against Italian fascism.
In the other corner is Italy’s Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, the de facto head of the country’s ruling coalition, and the populist anti-immigrant sentiment all across Europe he represents.
Salvini delivered a sharp public rebuke to Krajewski, challenging him to pay the past-due bills at the occupied building and to help Italians who struggle to make ends meet without breaking any laws. Salvini has a long history of crossing swords with the Church, once publicly brandishing a rosary and Bible to swear allegiance – not to the pope or Catholic social teaching, but to the Italian people, while vowing a crusade against “mass immigration.”
The contrast between these two poles – what Italians would call the buonisti, or “do-gooders,” and the duri, meaning the hard-liners – is clear enough. The battle is over the ordinary folk in the middle, and there the jury seems to be out.
Sunday night, I was at one of my favorite Roman restaurants. The owner is someone I’ve known for two decades, a decent guy who acts as a pillar of the neighborhood. He knows I cover the Vatican, so as we were standing outside having a smoke, he started a conversation by saying: “You know, sometimes I just don’t understand this pope.”
He referenced the fact that Francis had met members of Italy’s Gypsy communities on May 9, urging them not to lose hope in a future without discrimination.
“Look, if somebody comes here to work, to pay taxes, to raise a healthy family, I’m 100 percent ready to welcome them,” my friend said. “But if they come here to steal, to cheat, to create problems, then what sort of welcome am I supposed to give?”
“Everybody knows the problems with the Gypsies,” he said. “If the pope wants to welcome them, how about also telling them to stop stealing?”
To be clear, my friend is no ideologue. He’s just a small business owner trying to get through the day without seeing his clients hassled or robbed, and he gets exasperated when somebody appears to style that as racism or hardness of heart.
Perhaps the social justice-oriented Catholicism associated with Pope Francis can become part of a meaningful political alternative to Salvini-style populism in Italy and beyond, forging alliances with the kind of people who look to both the pontiff and Mayor Mimmo Lucano as heroes.
If so, the price of admission may be doing justice to the concerns of people like my restaurateur friend — who, if polls are to be believed, is hardly alone. No matter what happens in Europe this month, it’s a point Americans gearing up for 2020 might also do well to ponder.