It has been a difficult week for Italian politics, writes Alan Philps, as a general election approaches
In Italy, domestic woes and migration flows dominate election season
In less than a month, Italy will hold a general election in which migration and the failure of the European Union to control its southern border will be key issues. While Italy has many problems – from insolvent banks to unstable governments and a sluggish economy – the result may depend on a radical and in some respects daring effort by Italy to close down the maritime migration route from Africa.
On Monday the former Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, who is making another political comeback at the age of 81, said that immigration was a “social bomb ready to explode” after 620,000 migrants had arrived over the past four years. Mr Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition, which includes Eurosceptic and anti-foreigner parties, may come to power and further weaken Rome’s commitment to the European Union.
It has been a difficult week for Italian politics. On Saturday a failed neo-Fascist politician drove around the city of Macerata firing a Glock pistol at members of the public, injuring six Africans. He gave himself up to police, with an Italian flag draped around his shoulders.
The horrific incident followed the arrest of a Nigerian man charged with killing and dismembering an Italian teenager. Police said the gun attack was likely to be a racially-motivated attempt at revenge.
Over the past year Italy’s centre-left government has tried to save itself by moving forcefully on the migrant issue. It signed an agreement with the UN-backed government in Tripoli, which is contested by a rival administration in the east of the country, to return failed asylum-seekers. It has also poured money, with EU backing, into the Libyan coast guard to enable it to force migrant boats to return to shore. At the same time it is pay the government to induce militias in coastal towns to abandon people smuggling and earn a living by holding migrants in detention centres.
The Italian government says these efforts have prevented thousands of would-be migrants drowning at sea. But no one is duped into believing this is a primarily humanitarian operation: human rights activists say that 20,000 people are now in squalid detention centres subject to abuse, while militias and smuggler gangs are laundering their reputations. By working with Libyan militias, a report by two activist groups says, the EU “creates instability, sabotages the state-building process and further drives the exploitation and abuse of migrants in the country.”
Italy has gone further, sending troops to Niger, a sub-Saharan hub for people smuggling to Libya, to try to reduce the flow at source. But the Italians are finding that the business is too entrenched to eradicate: without money from the smugglers, the police cannot afford fuel for their cars. “In towns such as Agadez, migration is a critical source of community income, encompassing everyone from politicians and police to drivers, landlords, and shopkeepers. Kidnapping, terrorism, and war are the repugnant alternatives to profits from smuggling,” according to researchers Marissa Quie and Hameed Hakimi.
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The European Union, through its own aid budget and those of its member states, is the largest aid donor in the world. Much of its assistance is now directed to reducing migration numbers in Europe - notably through securing the agreement of countries to accept planeloads of returned asylum-seekers. Officially, the EU insists that repatriation of failed asylum-seekers is never a condition for aid, but member states whose politics have been upended by migration are happy to see a tough line enforced.
The Italian efforts have cut migrant numbers by more than a third, from 181,436 arriving in Italy in 2016 to 119,130 last year. But numbers showed a rising trend in January this year, proving that the flows are not easily curbed. For Italy the majority of migrants come from West Africa – Nigeria, Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire at the top three – whose chances of getting asylum are minimal, compared to Syrians who are more likely to be assessed as refugees.
The reduction in arrivals last year at least shows that the centre-left government is not afraid of taking a lead. As the former colonial power, Italy is well versed in the rival militias and powerholders, and it has the support of Brussels, provided no suspicious-looking payments become public.
But these actions are unlikely to be enough to remove the migration issue, and the unwillingness of Italy’s European partners to share the burden, from the election campaign. Both France and Austria have imposed border checks to prevent migrants leaving Italy, which is seen by Italians as a further act of disrespect to a founder member of the EU.
In fact, despite its importance in terms of population and economy, Italy is seen by France and Germany as worthy of attention only when it is a problem to the financial health of the bloc. It is the only country in the eurozone that is big enough to bring about the collapse of the currency union.
So it would not be surprising if a Eurosceptic government takes power in March, including the Northern League which is promising to deport 150,000 migrants. This would add a further division in the already fractured EU, just at a time when France and Germany are hoping to relaunch the bloc.
But the more pressing issue is the future of Libya. The UN is planning to hold elections in Libya this year, which may have the perverse effect of exacerbating tensions between the rival governments. The last elections, in 2014, led to a battle for Tripoli.
By taking a leading role in Libya, Italy is recalling its colonial past. Libya is not a country with natural borders or a long shared history, but one thing that unites the people is the memory of the struggle against Italian colonialism. Italy could justifiably state that it has dared to step in boldly where other countries feared to tread. But still, having Rome as the guiding force is not an ideal starting point for a new Libya, any more than Britain would be for Zimbabwe, or France would be for Syria.