'Don't Be Scared of Europe's New Populists,' Italy's Media Czar and Bannon Connection Tells Haaretz

Marcello Foa, a leading voice in Italy's populist movement, says attacks on George Soros are not anti-Semitic, Bannon doesn't understand Europe and international institutions and migration are the real threats

President of Italian State TV RAI, Marcello Foa, poses for a photo prior his lecture on fake news at the Italian Culture Institute in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018
Oded Balilty/AP

Marcello Foa, the controversial new head of Italy’s public broadcasting company, spoke in Israel this week about the dangers of fake news. The right-wing former journalist has struck some in the italian community of Tel Aviv as an unlikely anti-fake news warrior. Among the fake news stories he has been accused of spreading was that Hilary Clinton participated in satanic dinners before the 2016 Presidential elections in the United States.

Foa, always immaculately dressed in a suit and a tie, has been described by italian and foreign press as holding pro-Russian, anti-immigrant views. A former journalist at former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Il Giornale, he has been criticized for spreading conspiracy theories about the purported dangers of vaccines and for claiming that some gay rights activists are trying to “eradicate the natural sexual identity” of the majority.

President of Italian State TV RAI, Marcello Foa, gives a lecture on fake news at the Italian Culture Institute in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018
Oded Balilty/AP

Foa says he’s made some mistakes in the past, but claims his critics have used cherry-picked statements that were taken out of context and distorted. He insists he supports gay rights and does not back anti-vaccine campaigns, but simply looks at all issues with a critical eye. At 55, he is one of the leading voices in the wave of populist sentiment in Italy and introduced Italy’s anti-immigrant deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, to Donald Trump’s former advisor, Steve Bannon.

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In an interview with Haaretz, Foa was keen to distance himself from the racist and neo-Nazi groups that are often supportive of the populist surge in Europe. “If these groups express support for the current Italian government they are doing so of their own accord,” he says. “I don’t approve of these extremists, I have no sympathy for those movements.” Foa describes himself as a liberal moderate and shrugs off claims he holds extreme views with a laugh.

Foa, a Catholic, also emphasized that he feels “a cultural and ethical affinity with Israel and Judaism” because he had a Jewish grandfather and because he was mentored as a journalist by Vittorio Dan Segre, an Italian-Israeli writer and diplomat.

“Every time I come to Israel it feels like rediscovering my roots,” he said.

Marcello Foa hours after arriving to Tel Aviv, on Saturday, October 13, 2018
Meged Gozani

Foa recalls with pride an interview he did with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin weeks before his assassination in 1995. “I was struck by how tense Rabin was at the time, worried by the political atmosphere,” he says. “For me Rabin and [Shimon] Peres were model politicians.” Israel’s greatest strength has always been keeping the moral high ground and staying true to ethical principles, but that tendency is fading, Foa notes.

He doesn’t think it’s fading in Europe, however. He does not see evidence of xenophobia in the rhetoric or actions of European populist leaders today, be it against migrants or Roma people. Foa says that today, people’s suspicions of migrants and minorities “are based on direct social experience.” In contrast, persecutions of Jews and other minorities during World War II “were based on a racist ideology,” he contends.

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He also does not consider current attacks on Jewish-American billionaire George Soros, a favorite target of right-wing leaders in Europe and the U.S., as anti-Semitic.

Soros has been vilified by President Trump and his supporters. In 2016, Trump’s Presidential campaign presented Soros as a manipulative demonic puppet master of the “globalists.”

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has cast Soros – Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor – as a national hate-figure, accusing him of funding those who “support everything that weakens the nation-state” and “the European human rights activism that encourages the refugees” to reach Europe.

A billboard with a poster of Hungarian-American billionaire and philanthropist George Soros is seen in the 22nd district of Budapest on October 16, 2017
ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFP

“Had he been attacked as a Jew it would be anti-Semitism, but this is not what happens and I think it is offensive to use anti-Semitism as an alibi to stifle such a debate,” Foa claimed. “Otherwise, in the long run, you are just encouraging and legitimizing anti-Semitism.”

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Foa claims Soros has been attacked because of his actions, and corroborates his argument citing a report he claims showed the progressive philanthropist had financed an “enormous number” of European Parliament members, including “the entire delegation from Italy’s center-left Democratic Party.”

Haaretz, however, could not confirm the existence of such a report. Italy’s Democratic Party spokesman Roberto Cuillo denied the claim and said Foa was probably referring to a similar allegation that was based on a report by a consulting firm that listed members of the European parliament whose positions were deemed close to Soros’ views, and circulated last year in populist and Eurosceptic media.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump's former chief strategist Steve Bannon poses in Piazza Navona in Rome, Italy March 2, 2018
\ Tony Gentile/ REUTERS

But Foa, who wrote in a book that “the debate about fake news aims first of all at silencing free voices that break official narratives,” says he was a victim of a smear campaign to block his appointment as head of Italy’s state broadcaster, RAI, and insists the main problem today lies in the bias of mainstream media. Speaking at a conference at the Italian Cultural Institute of Tel Aviv on Tuesday, Foa outlined the threat fake news pose to democracy.

The term “fake news” took hold in 2016 after mainstream media in the U.S. reported on the online spread of fabricated stories aimed at helping Donald Trump win the presidency last year. Meanwhile, Trump accused the mainstream media itself of producing fake news.

The architect of American populism and Trump’s 2016 victory, Steve Bannon, was also the executive chairman of Breitbart news, a prime example of website that has railed against mainstream media. Foa has met Bannon at least twice during his increasingly frequent trips to Europe, where he has been courting populist leaders to unite Europe’s far-right parties.

Bannon announced the formation of the Brussels-based “The Movement” as an ideological umbrella to promote his project and protect Europe’s so-called Judeo-Christian heritage, a movement that Salvini’s party, the League, has endorsed. Bannon is also known to be sponsoring the launch of political academies for new far-right leaders in both France and Italy.

Bannon views the Italian far-right League and its coalition government with the Eurosceptic anti-establishment 5 Star Movement as a success story that he would like to emulate for his pan-European project. The League successfully ran on a nationalist platform promising to put “Italians first” that critics called Islamophobic and xenophobic. Since becoming interior minister, the League's Salvini has attempted to block ships that rescue migrants at sea from docking in Italy and has promoted policies that critics have dubbed racist, such as a plan to make a census of Roma people.

Foa said that while Bannon is a “very intelligent man,” he is too impetuous and prone to lose his temper. “His vision of European matters is patchy and U.S.-centric in the way he analyses social phenomena,” said Foa. “France is no Tennessee and Italy is no Ohio so I don’t know for now what he will be able to achieve in Europe,” he concluded.

President of Italian State TV RAI, Marcello Foa, gives a lecture on fake news at the Italian Culture Institute in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018
Oded Balilty,AP

What Foa is referring to is European populists’ efforts to create an “Internazionale Sovranista.” “Sovranismo” is a term Foa likes to use: It recently became popular in Italian public discourse to describe the country’s new coalition government. For EU countries, Foa explains, “sovranismo” means increased control over national borders in order to stem the flow of immigration and lessen restrictions on economic and budget policies. “Sovranismo” refers to the belief that sovereignty should be restored to the people and away from international institutions - notably away from the European Union. Critics say “sovranismo” and populism are virtually interchangeable.

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In a book by Foa’s friend and Italian academic Giuseppe Valditara titled “Sovranismo: the last hope for democracy,” he makes the case for the creation of an international movement - a coalition of parties promoting the “sovereignty of the people” against “globalism,” a protest against the rise of international mechanisms and the growing internationalization of the market.

Steve Bannon’s ideology, what he terms “economic nationalism,” is another way to understand this. Bannon told Haaretz in July that “economic nationalism means a double struggle against the forces that depress the wages of American workers: illegal immigration, and the export of jobs to China and the developing world... It is therefore also a struggle to reinvigorate an international order in which nation-states are the pillars of stability. It is a fight against globalism, internationalism, the EU, and other international organizations that compete for sovereignty against nation-states.”

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“In many Western countries people feel they are no longer the masters in their own home, and I think this is a legitimate feeling,” Foa says explaining the new movement. “There are many international organizations that have enormous powers and no one knows anything about them, so what we call sovranismo is a self-defense mechanism.”

Ever the ideologue, Foa however insists this new “sovranismo” is not a nationalist ideology. “Nationalists think their country is superior and has some moral, economic or cultural primacy over other countries,” Foa says. “I reject nationalism, it is dangerous, it belongs to another era and it only caused harm.” Foa is careful to reject the supremacy of nationalism for the isolationism of “sovranismo.” To Foa, the new ideology proposes the return to an order of independent nation-states, which may have relationships of trade and dialogue, without the interference of international mechanisms that aim to connect them. This “people’s sovereignty” is not necessarily supremacist, to Foa, although nationalists, populists, “sovranisti” and economic nationalists all seem to agree that immigration is a phenomenon that must be stopped, or at least severely restricted.