By Lorenzo Bagnoli and Alessia Cerantola for The Atlantic
MILAN—The annual meeting of the League appears at first to be a casual affair: Supporters of the far-right Italian party gather in Pontida, a small town north of Milan, milling around barbecues, drinking beer, chatting, and singing. It looks more like a festival than a political conference. The politicians who attend—and all senior League officials do—are easily approachable and willing to talk (to activists, if not journalists).
For the League’s members, it is like a pagan Christmas—those who were naughty over the course of the year are relegated to the background, while those who were nice are feted onstage, crowds chanting their name as they deliver a speech, each speaker more important than the last. The final address always goes to one man: Matteo Salvini, the party’s leader since 2013. And this year he is honoring Luca Toccalini.
Just 29, Toccalini has served in Italy’s Parliament for more than a year but has been coming to these meetings since he was a teenager. Back then, his ambitions were decidedly more humble: aiming to be the cashier of a small restaurant in his hometown, where his two best friends would work as cooks. He became involved with the League (then a regional party called the Northern League) only after he was handed a flyer on the street, and the relationship soon deepened. At this latest annual conference, Salvini would name him national coordinator for the party’s youth department.
It is an influential post, responsible for organizing and campaigning. Yet the connection between the two men also carries a powerful symbolism: If Salvini, Italy’s former interior minister and deputy prime minister, is at the forefront of the far right’s current ascendance in Europe—its most famous face, according to fellow populists—then Toccalini points to the movement’s future.
He and others like him represent a growing movement of young activists in Italy and across Europe who identify not as the far right, or even as nationalists, but as identitarians, concerned primarily with the preservation of what they believe to be their societies’ long-held identities. They promote Christian values against what they claim is the forced Islamization of Europe; heterosexual families rather than gay marriage or even civil partnerships; and local traditions as opposed to mass migration. Across the continent, from Eastern Europe to France and from Greece to Scandinavia, these identitarians have loudly proclaimed their presence, perhaps nowhere more so than in Italy, and perhaps none more so than Toccalini himself.
“I was born in the League,” Toccalini told us. “I will die in the League.”