Hello Anja Palm, in Italy, you are studying EU migration policies at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI). We have been following your work for a long time. Recently, you have published an article for IAI dealing with the migration policies of Italy in the context of the general elections. So I’ve prepared a few questions in this context.
How did the issue of migration affect the March 4th elections? When we look at the party programs, do we find special emphasis on this issue?
Notwithstanding the efforts undertaken over the last years by the centre-left coalition government led by the Democratic Party (PD) to manage and reduce migration flows to Italy and the ‘success’ in reducing irregular arrivals (-34 % in 2017 compared to 2016), the topic is still highly controversial. According to a survey conducted by Tecné, as of February 2017 64 % of respondents considered Italian migration policies in a negative light.
This has heavily influenced public discourse and impacted the electoral campaign, particularly as far as the other two big political fronts are concerned, namely the right-wing coalition and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement. Both have heavily criticized the PD’s actions and taken a much harder stance on stopping migratory flows: their electoral programmes highlight the unrealistic objective of “zero landings”, to be obtained through the pushback of migrants and forced returns. The electoral manifestos of the right-wing Lega party also read large slogans stating “Italians first” or “stop the invasion”.
Given the consequences, can we say that the anti-immigrant parties have succeeded?
If we consider that nearly 70 % of Italians voted for parties (i.e. Lega, Forza Italia and Five Star Movement) that propose strongly contrasting migratory flows, this is clearly a sign that the electorate is concerned about the current situation. But it also has to be kept in mind that while migration was a key topic in these elections, it is not the only one leading to the choice of the party to support; the electoral campaign was shaped by a range of other topics and political sensitivities, which cannot be reduced to the migration issue.
These elections should nevertheless work as a waking call for all factions, shifting the focus on long-term policies to develop responses on the one hand to the demographic and labour market challenges building up in the EU’s Southern Neighbourhood and further, and on the other hand to the crucial issue of integration and second generations. These topics, which have been considerably lacking in the electoral campaign, need to be put on the table in order to deal with migration in a truly comprehensive manner, overcoming the current narrow focus on reducing arrivals.
The measures that Italy has taken to prevent the flows of migrants coming from Africa are much debated. You’re talking about it in the article. Is there a trend in the country that criticizes government policies resulting in human rights violations, especially the “measures” used in Libya?
A large majority in the country disagreed with the choices taken on migration management with third countries by the PD. But while most claimed that they were insufficient and that a stronger stance should be taken (see above), those criticizing the human rights and – security impact of them was a minority. This was nevertheless one of the key issues that led to disagreements among left-wing parties and even divisions in the PD itself. Italy’s migration cooperation with Libya has further been fiercely criticized by civil society, journalists and experts in Italy and the EU.
There clearly is the tendency in Italy to blame the EU for the lack of responsibility sharing. The reform of the Dublin regulation was the only issue that all parties agreed on in their electoral programmes. Would the delay of the Dublin reform and Italy’s unanswered requests to share the responsibility negatively affect Italy-EU relations?
Italy has been fighting to obtain a fairer system of responsibility-sharing between EUMS for years. While the relocation programme took up speed in 2017, the number of eligible people has been constantly reduced (from 160.000 to 33.000) and some EUMS have been staunchly refusing to cooperate. The decision by the Commission to launch infringement procedures against the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland nevertheless seems a positive step towards the realisation of compulsory quotas.
Notwithstanding the difficulties encountered, Italians still encourage a greater EU activism: according to the latest Eurobarometer, 61 % of respondents in Italy would like more decisions to be taken at the EU level (55 % is the EU 28 average), and even 70% expressed their support for a common migration policy. It can be imagined that if the EU will fail to deliver a common response, trust in the EU will further decrease in Italy (it already fell from 36 % to 34 % since the last survey, a percentage that is much lower if compared to the EU 28 average of 41 %).
Finally, what can you say about the future of immigrants in Italy in a possible right-wing coalition? Will the atmosphere be more negative than we expected in such a case?
The right-wing coalition itself with 37 % (with Forza Italia (14 %) and Lega (17,4 %) being the two strongest parties) cannot govern alone: this is why currently there are consultations underway to form a broader coalition. The Five Star Movement, being the party that totalized most consensus with its 32,7 %, has taken a leading role and so far affirmed to be interested only in forming coalitions with the Lega or the PD, not with the Berlusconi-led Forza Italia. The final set-up of the coalition (if there will not be a second election because of the inability to form one) will clearly influence the coming migration policies.
One eventual silver lining is that, aside from the bold claims advanced during the campaign, we can presume that whoever takes office will be forced to follow a more moderate position on migration. This might also be due to the bureaucratic structures in the ministries possibly demonstrating to be quite resilient to political change in the short term. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine that the future government will represent an open and forward-looking voice, carrying consequences for broader EU debates on migration policies. It also has to be kept in mind that the PD-led policies were already walking a tightrope in terms of long-term sustainability and fundamental rights violations. If reducing arrivals to Italy seems in the interest of all parties, the key question is therefore the weight that will be given to other aspects such as the rights and human security of migrants, but also development, and trade and economic relations with third countries.