Election results will make life even more miserable for Italy’s illegal migrants

Italy's brittle political climate makes blaming Africans and Arabs an easy vote-winner.
Sunday 11/03/2018
People carry vegetable baskets inside a camp for migrant minors in Catania. (AFP)
Brittle climate. People carry vegetable baskets inside a camp for migrant minors in Catania. (AFP)

An optimist would call the results of Italy’s parliamentary elections a damning indictment of the political classes that have governed Italy for a generation. A pessimist would call the results a shipwreck.

What is not in doubt is that voters have held politicians responsible for Italy’s shortcomings, which include two decades of economic stagnation and waves of illegal migration that have left 650,000 African and Middle Eastern men and women stranded in the country since 2014.

Regardless of which coalition ends up ruling Italy, the vote will raise the stakes of the country’s fraught efforts to overhaul Europe’s asylum system. Italy, being the main arrival point for immigrants from Libya, will push hardest to reform EU rules, which stipulate that asylum seekers must be processed in the member country they first enter.

Uncontrolled immigration is tearing Europe apart and voters at the coalface in Italy know there is no way to assimilate so many people of different cultures. With the exception of Germany and Sweden, no European country has shown solidarity with Italy and accepted a significant number of refugees.

The recent wave of migration to Europe needs to be considered in light of stymied living standards across Europe, where people have been asked to work harder for the same wages to compete in a globalised world. This suits Germany and Holland, which have capital account surpluses, but not Italy.

Italy’s future is jeopardised by the lethal combination of four factors: lack of productivity growth, a negative demographic outlook, high levels of public debt and a political impasse in the eurozone that both puts the country at continuous risk of speculative attacks and renders elections superfluous, engendering a sense of loss of sovereignty that fuels nationalism and populism.

Pervasive corruption and the flight of young, educated Italians, who have voted with their feet for a generation, make for a brittle political climate in which blaming Africans and Arabs is an easy vote-winner.

Two parties triumphed in the early March elections. The insurgent protest Five Star Movement, founded by comedian Beppe Grillo and political activist Gianroberto Casaleggio in 2009, won 33% of the vote overall and reached close to 50% in much of southern Italy.

The party, which says it is the only path to cleaning up Italian politics, has drawn support from both the left and the right over the years. Its Neapolitan leader, Luigi Di Maio, 31, will have to choose between making a deal with dissidents of the humbled centre-left Democratic Party of former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on a possible platform of greater social welfare spending, or forging an alliance with the right-wing Northern League on a platform of tough curbs on immigration, higher deficits in defiance of EU budget rules and protectionism.

The Northern League was transformed by its leader, Matteo Salvini, into a far-right nationalist party along the lines of France’s National Front. It won 18% of the vote nationally and emerged as the leading conservative political force, usurping former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia party, which polled only 14%, 8 points down from 2013. Together, the centre-right coalition, which includes the Northern League, Forza Italia and two other smaller, right-wing parties, gained 37% of the vote.

A year ago, Salvini called for a “mass cleaning of Italy, street by street, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, square by square and through the use of force if need be.” A former Northern League candidate recently open fired on immigrants in Macerata.

The anti-fascist organisation Infoantifa ECN said there have been 142 attacks by neo-fascist groups since 2014. The National Association of Italian Partisans, founded by members of the Italian resistance against former dictator Benito Mussolini, drew up a list of 500 internet sites praising fascism in Italy. It failed to get the sites blocked by authorities.

The Italian state, unlike Germany’s and much like Austria’s, failed to accept responsibility for the extraordinary violence it used when colonising Libya in the early 20th century and the 750,000 Ethiopians killed during its brutal conquest and occupation of what was then known as Abyssinia from 1936-41. The younger generation of Italians know nothing of the mustard gas used against the Christian people of Ethiopia.

The Italian political, bureaucratic and financial establishment was looking forward to playing its part in the long-awaited Franco-German initiative on closer eurozone and EU integration but the humiliating defeat of the Italian centre-right (Forza Italia) and centre-left parties, which basically support the initiative in Italy, has dashed that hope. Another deep concern in European capitals is that the Five Star Movement has built a sprawling network of websites and social media accounts that spread fake news, conspiracy theories and pro-Kremlin stories to millions of Italians.

For the many illegal immigrants living in refugee camps or working as virtual slave labourers in farms across south Italy, life will become more dangerous. No senior political voice in southern rim Mediterranean countries will dare speak out in their favour. Salvini belongs to a growing list of political leaders who, like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, stir racial hatred to win elections. The voices of dialogue in the Mediterranean are getting fainter.