The Cable

Italy Gets a New Government, and Jail Time for People Smuggler

It's one thing to bash migrants. It's another to govern when they arrive in unprecedented numbers on your shores.


On Wednesday, Italy’s new and almost certainly very temporary prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, won the backing of the Senate, opening the door for his government to take office.

But it won’t likely stay long. Italy’s populist parties, the Five Star Movement and the Northern League, are both calling for early elections, after the defeat of a referendum that would have centralized power pushed former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi from office. Renzi has hinted that he, too, could come back for early elections, which are to be held after the Italian parliament fixes an electoral glitch. (The new electoral law, premised on a successful referendum, changed the voting rules for Italy’s parliament.)

The defeat of the referendum also means the likely defeat of Renzi’s labor reforms, which will mean no immediate relief for the struggling Italian economy between now and whenever elections are held. That’ll provide more grist for the self-styled anti-establishment populist parties, though they’ve offered few solutions to reform the labor market or stave off a looming banking crisis. The migrant crisis could help populists, too: Some 13 percent more migrants landed in Italy this year than they did in 2015.

But this, too, comes with humanitarian complications that may bedevil the Five Star Movement or the Northern League. It is one thing to campaign against migrants; it is another to govern when they arrive in unprecedented numbers on your shores, as Greece discovered.

For example, on Tuesday, a judge in Sicily sentenced Mohammed Ali Malek of Tunisia to 18 years in prison for multiple counts of manslaughter and human trafficking. Malek was the captain of a ship that capsized and killed 700 asylum seekers in the Mediterranean in April 2015. His alleged first mate, Syrian Mahmoud Bikhit, was sentenced to five years. Both were ordered to pay nine million euros in fines.

With the situation in Syria as catastrophic as ever, and asylum seekers also coming from Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Iraq, among others, playing the anti-migrant card will probably continue to pay political dividends for Italy’s anti-establishment parties, as it has done for right-wing parties in Europe and the United States.

But it’s less clear that rabble rousing will translate into meaningful and much-needed reforms for the the Italian economy or the Italian people, who have seen youth unemployment of almost 40 percent and weaker-than-expected exports decimate what was once one of Europe’s more vibrant economies.

Photo credit: ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images

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