European leaders have expressed concerns over the outcome of Italy’s election and condemned a senior politician who warned that the “white race” was at risk from uncontrolled immigration.
Brussels is concerned about the increasingly xenophobic tone of the campaign for the March 4 general election, as leading parties spar over immigration in a country which has rescued 600,000 migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean in the last four years.
Attilio Fontana, a prominent politician from the Right-wing Northern League, apologised for his remarks about the threat of migrants, in which he said: “We have to decide if our ethnicity, if our white race, if our society continues to exist or if it will be canceled out.”
“It was an unfortunate expression,” Mr Fontana, who is the League’s candidate to become the next governor of the rich northern region of Lombardy, said on Wednesday.
But he stood by his warning over the impact of the hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees who have reached Italy by boat from Libya.
"I think that this uncontrolled immigration risks causing serious problems for our country in the future. This is what I wanted to say,” said Mr Fontana, a former mayor of the northern town of Varese.
His original remark prompted outrage in Brussels, with several senior figures branding it racist and alarmist.
They also expressed concerns about the prospect of Eurosceptic parties such as the Northern League and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement performing well in the election.
"Italy is preparing for elections, the outcome of which is somewhat uncertain," Pierre Moscovici, Commissioner for Economic Affairs, told a press conference in Paris, describing the Italian election as one of the “risk factors” facing the EU.
"What ruling majority will emerge from the vote? What programme for Europe?” he said.
He criticised an election pledge by the Five Star Movement, which is leading the polls, to loosen EU rules which impose budget cuts for debt-laden countries like Italy.
Five Star says that if it wins the election it wants to increase public spending and raise the budget deficit above the current limit of three per cent of GDP.
It has threatened to hold a referendum on Italy’s use of the euro if its plans are blocked by Brussels.
"It’s an absolute contradiction," Mr Moscovici said. "The three per cent ceiling has a very precise sense to stop debt rising further.”
The remarks about the risks posed to the “white race” in Italy were also condemned by Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the European Commission.
"We must protect the values that we share as Europeans. We are all equal, regardless of race or religion. I think the danger for Europe does not come from other countries or other religions, but from fear that too often inspires the exclusion of others".
But the interventions from Brussels were criticised by Italian politicians, notably Luigi di Maio, the leader of the Five Star Movement, and Matteo Salvini, the head of the Northern League, as unacceptable interference in the election debate.
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