French-Italian row complicates Europe’s stance on migration, Libya

The divide is affecting intra-European relations as well as the continent’s policies on global issues such as migration.
Sunday 27/01/2019
This picture taken on June 13, 2018 shows the Embassy of Italy in Paris. (AFP)
This picture taken on June 13, 2018 shows the Embassy of Italy in Paris. (AFP)

The recent dispute between France and Italy is only the latest manifestation of Europe’s widening divide with the rise of populist politics.

This divide is affecting intra-European relations as well as the continent’s policies on global issues such as migration. It is also conditioning Europe’s attitude towards its southern neighbours.

The French-Italian row reflects the deep European divide over two visions. One is advocated by anti-migration and anti-EU parties, such as Italy’s far-right League and the Five Star Movement. The other vision finds expression in the more traditional, establishmentarian and pro-EU policies of French President Emmanuel Macron, who is now the target of the Italian populists’ ire.

The row has given way to an unprecedented French-Italian war of words that serves to discredit Europe’s policies in the Maghreb and Africa. It is also fuelling doubt about Italy’s and France’s commitment to find a solution to the instability and chaos unhinging Libya since the 2011 end of the NATO-led military campaign.

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini accused France of having “no interest in stabilising the situation” in Libya, “probably because it has oil interests that are opposed to those of Italy.”

The stakes for both Italy’s ENI and France’s Total in Libya’s energy resources may be huge but it doesn’t do much for the credibility of international peace efforts in that strife-plagued country to paint the French and Italian roles as driven by purely mercantile motives.

Accusations by senior Italian officials can only lend credence to the most cynical, if not conspiratorial, theories regarding European designs on Libya.

And the French-Italian row can only adversely affect Europe’s treatment of another  loaded problem, that of migration.

Since June, Rome has closed Italian ports to migrant rescue ships while blasting Paris for its attitude towards migrants. “France has no reason to get upset because it pushed away tens of thousands of migrants (at the French border), abandoning them there as though they were beasts,” said Salvini.

More than Paris or Rome, it is migrants who have a lot to lose in the French-Italian crossfire as their tragedy continues to unfold.

Since the beginning of the year, more than 200 migrants have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean. The UN migration agency said no fewer than 4,216 migrants made it to Europe in the first 16 days of the year, compared to 2,365 during the same period of 2018.

For lack of a welcome and safe harbour in Italy, many of the rescued migrants are being sent back to Libya despite the inadequate holding conditions there. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has criticised the European “politicking around sea rescues.”

UNHCR spokesman Charlie Yaxley observed that “rescue at sea has been taken hostage by politics… decisive leadership that taps into fundamental values of humanity and compassion is sorely needed.” Private NGOs find it increasingly impossible to lend a helping hand to migrants drifting at sea in makeshift boats.

Instead of eliciting a debate about the deep roots of the migration problem and the way to effectively address it, the French-Italian spat is only fuelling a self-serving blame game.

“If people are leaving today it’s because European countries, France above all, have never stopped colonising dozens of African countries,” claimed Italian Economic Development Minister Luigi Di Maio. The solution advocated by Di Maio is hardly deserving of the descriptor. “The EU should sanction France and all countries like France that impoverish Africa and make these people leave because Africans should be in Africa, not at the bottom of the Mediterranean,” he said.

Ironically, even in France, the Yellow Vest insurrection has led to a rise in the political fortunes of the far-right. It has also ushered in new debate about imposing immigration quotas, this time suggested by Macron himself.

In the run-up to elections for the European Parliament in May, one can expect such populist rhetoric to escalate and permeate the political debate.

The already-significant tension emanating from the two colliding visions of Europe will not help address the issue of migration, help resolve MENA’S lingering conflicts, such as the one in Libya, or assist the region with tackling its chronic socio-economic difficulties. It will only complicate them.