EU migration policy in limbo, Italy’s new government vows radical change

Salvini’s words are the first move in what may turn into a renegotiation between Italy and the European Union on migration policy.
Sunday 10/06/2018
Tough line. Italy’s Vice-Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini during a visit to a migrant reception centre in the southern Sicilian port of Pozzallo, on June 3. (AP)
Tough line. Italy’s Vice-Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini during a visit to a migrant reception centre in the southern Sicilian port of Pozzallo, on June 3. (AP)

MILAN - The results of Italy’s March 4 election culminated in a government led by the Five Star Movement and the League, bringing together the country’s insurgent populist elements into a union based on Euroscepticism and opposition to immigration.

The League’s leader, Matteo Salvini, will take the position of deputy prime minister and interior minister in the new government. Salvini is vehemently opposed to immigration and before the elections promised to give a “kick in the ass” to 500,000 migrants and refugees he claimed were living in Italy illegally.

When he is not engaged in a war of words with Mario Balotelli, a footballer born in Italy to Ghanaian parents and who did not receive his Italian nationality until after he turned 18, Salvini has been speaking tough on immigration.

During a visit June 3 at a migrant reception centre in the southern Sicilian port of Pozzallo, Salvini said Italy refuses to act as “Europe’s refugee camp.”

Many in Europe agree that current regulations have created problems for Italy. In the last year, France shut its border with Italy so migrants cannot journey through. The route to Germany, once a place refugees were welcomed, has been closed. Many Eastern European countries have been unwilling to receive migrants and refugees, particularly those from Muslim-majority countries such as Syria.

Salvini’s motives seem to be driven by animus as opposed to concern. His words are the first move in what may turn into a renegotiation between Italy and the European Union on migration policy.

“Under the new government, Italy will try to increase the other member states’ quotas of migrants and to obtain the authorisation to do a few things, including facilitating detainment for up to 18 months and expulsions for irregular migrants,” said Riccardo Fabiani, an Italian geopolitical analyst at the research consultancy Energy Aspects.

“In this complex negotiation, Italy is hoping that like-minded populist-run countries like Poland, Hungary and Austria could support its thesis but this is likely to be more wishful thinking than not, as these countries’ interests are very different in this situation: Italy is a front-line country in the migration crisis, while its East European neighbours tend to avoid any responsibility in this situation.”

Just days before Salvini was made interior minister, his predecessor Marco Minniti announced an immigration and asylum plan. The plan was controversial, however, because of its tough stance on returning as many migrants who had entered the country illegally as possible, unpaid work for asylum seekers, an extension of the administrative detention system and a hastening of the asylum process by reducing guarantees.

“When Marco Minniti became minister of the interior, he swept into office deeply determined to achieve a decrease in the number of migrant arrivals,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a geopolitical analyst in Paris. “Yet, it was not really a part of a populist or demagogic thrust similar to the philosophy dominating the Five Star Movement, the League and others. Minniti was more pragmatic than the right-wing sentiment that prevailed at the elections [three] months ago.”

Salvini has announced that the “good time for illegal immigrants is coming to an end,” indicating harsher measures against those seeking a better life in Italy.

Salvini vowed the new government would increase the number of detention centres to fulfil his campaign promise to deport 500,000 migrants and refugees. While Salvini’s promises seem far-fetched — logistically, economically and with respect to finding agreements with the countries that would receive the people he deems illegal — they signal a difficult phase for migrants and refugees in Italy.

“This time around, the new government will be tempted to be less pragmatic and more into pleasing the Italian populace. The Italian public wants to hear about a forceful solution to the migrant crisis in Libya, not a pragmatic one,” said Harchaoui.

“Will this new inclination of Rome help bring about a durable solution to the migrant crisis in Libya? No, but that is inherent in populism. Populism is never realistic. I expect this new wave to generate a behaviour in Rome that is even less realistic, more shallow and perhaps more dangerous than what the Democratic Party did.”

14