Will the EU resist Salvini’s anti-migration crusade?

By Hedwig Giusto

In his first few weeks as the new Italian Minister of the Interior, the League’s leader Matteo Salvini did not miss an opportunity to stress that dealing with the “business of migration” represents his main goal and that he intends to stand by the promises made during the electoral campaign and in the government contract to stop migration and increase returns. He will soon have to face reality, but in terms of support his strategy is paying off.

It was just a question of time. The new Italian Minister of the Interior’s statements were already heading in that direction. So the most recent stance taken by Matteo Salvini on shutting Italy’s ports to rescue boats comes as no surprise. Being a minister, after all, has not softened Mr Salvini’s poisonous narrative on migration. After only a few hours in office, the newly appointed minister defined the NGOs that operate search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea – a long-time target of his rhetoric – as “vice scafisti” (deputy human smugglers and traffickers), warned irregular migrants that “the party is over” and that “they should start packing”, and even caused, a diplomatic incident with Tunisia declaring that the North African country “only exports convicts”.

After all, Matteo Salvini is just living up to the promises he made in the course of the electoral campaign and in the last few years of his vocal and consistent anti-migration crusade. The fact that most of his promises – as simple and straightforward as they may sound – are difficult to implement is of little importance. As long as there is a “migration emergency”, as long as he can portray migrants as a threat to Italy’s security, stability and economy, and as long as he can blame the European Union for having left Italy alone in dealing with the migrants’ flows, there will be a demand for parties that promise to stop migration, close borders, send back home “illegal migrants” (clandestini is the word he uses on a regular basis), and stand firm against the EU. The first (still partial) results of last Sunday’s local elections in about 760 municipalities seem to confirm this trend.

The League’s proposals on how to deal with migration are largely reflected, even if in apparently milder words, in chapter 13 of the so-called “contract” that the Five Star Movement and the League negotiated and signed a few weeks ago with the aim of finding common ground on which to build the new government. Mentioned in the title of the chapter, the main focus is on Salvini’s favourite mantra, that is, sending home 500,000 undocumented migrants and putting an end to what he defines as the “business of migration”.

As for the former goal – returns and readmissions – if the contract does mention the need to implement the relevant bilateral agreements with the country of origin in order to send migrants home (but Italy only has a handful of such agreements, and negotiating new ones is far from being an easy task), little is said on how to actually put measures in place in a field where no (democratic) country has so far succeeded. Moreover, in order to finance returns, the government coalition intends to re-allocate part of the funds aimed at the reception services, which – as it is well known – are already not renowned for their high standards.

The two parties’ proposal to evaluate the admissibility of the demands for protection in the countries of origin and transit is also striking. Essentially, according to the League and the Five Star Movement, offices for dealing with such procedures should be established in the very same countries and supposedly with the authorisation of the very same governments that the asylum seekers are trying to flee from. Even the principle of family reunification, which represents an essential element of the current regulation on asylum, is put into question, on the grounds that we should avoid “fictitious cases” of reunification and other supposed abuses. No matter if this means that children may be prevented from joining their parents and families. Furthermore, the contract does not bother to mention fundamental principles such as the protection of human rights or the need to integrate migrants, while the freedom to practice other religions may be restricted by measures aimed at the control on the places of worship and on the imams.

At European level the first opportunity for the “yellow-green” government to speak up against the EU member states’ lack of solidarity towards the countries most affected by the migrants’ inflows was offered last week by the Council of Minister of Interiors, which was to discuss the Bulgarian proposal to reform the Dublin Regulation. Mr. Salvini did not attend this first meeting, as Italy’s Parliament was going to give a vote the confidence to the Conte government. The Italian representative, however, rejected a proposal that would further increase the South European states’ responsibilities in the management of migration flows. The dismissal of the Bulgarian efforts was then presented as an Italian success, despite the fact that the Gentiloni government had already expressed its opposition to a very unbalanced proposal and that other European governments opposed it, even if on very different grounds.

For the time being, hope to revitalise the debate on the reform is getting weaker. The Italian government has not presented an alternative plan, and the next Austrian Presidency of the EU has already announced that this topic is not going to be in its agenda anyway. Soon, Mr. Salvini’s “chemistry” with the Visegrad countries plus Austria, stemming from the common presumption that it is possible to stop migration for good, will have to face reality. In fact, whatever the recipes suggested by the Italian minister, Italy’s interests are simply antithetical to those of the Central European countries, whose goal is to keep migrants as far as possible from their territory and who have no intention on agreeing to a fairer share of responsibilities with the other member states, which would instead benefit Italy.

Meanwhile, the new Spanish government has offered the vessel Aquarius access to the port of Valencia. Salvini did not miss an opportunity to claim that speaking up against Europe was a successful strategy and that in just 24 hours he managed to change things in the EU. It is suspected, rather, that it was the new Socialist government is Spain that made the change.

Photo: @Stefano Guidi / Shutterstock.com