Eastern Europe’s Populists Don’t Care About Italy

Matteo Salvini wants to be buddies with anti-immigrant leaders in Hungary, Poland, and Austria. But sometimes geography trumps ideology.

Austria's Interior Minister Herbert Kickl (L), Italy's Interior Minister and deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini (R) and Austria's Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache (C) arrive to give a joint press conference at the end of their meeting at the Viminale palace in Rome on June 20, 2018.
Austria's Interior Minister Herbert Kickl (L), Italy's Interior Minister and deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini (R) and Austria's Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache (C) arrive to give a joint press conference at the end of their meeting at the Viminale palace in Rome on June 20, 2018.

During a visit to Italy last week, Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache praised the birth of an anti-immigration block in Europe as a “coalition of the willing,” borrowing a phrase from the George W. Bush administration. Strache, a member of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, was referring to a newly found coziness among his own country, the so-called Visegrad Group — comprising the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia — and, of course, Italy. The governments of those six countries have been brought together by a shared tough-on-immigration stance.

Italy joined that unofficial group quite recently. On June 1, it became the first country in Western Europe to be ruled by a full-fledged populist government, after the Five Star Movement and the League formed a coalition and Giuseppe Conte was sworn in as prime minister. Despite being pro-Russian and vocally anti-establishment, the Five Star Movement doesn’t consider itself right-wing. (According to a March survey, only 9 percent of the party’s voters see it as right-leaning, and almost 40 percent believe it’s left-leaning.) But the League does: Its leader, Matteo Salvini, has admitted to being inspired by France’s Marine Le Pen. More recently, he expressed admiration for Hungary’s proudly illiberal leader, Viktor Orban.

Salvini, the government’s de facto leader, insists that Italy’s place now lies in a strong alliance with Austria and the Visegrad nations, especially when it comes to curbing the refugee influx. And yet it’s precisely on immigration that Italy’s fundamental interests diverge from those of the Central and Eastern European nations.

Because of its geographic location, Italy is one of the top destinations for migrants. Since the migration crisis began three years ago, Italy has been the second-most popular destination country after Greece. This year, it has seen more arrivals by sea than any other EU country. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), some 16,500 migrants and refugees have reached Italy by sea since the beginning of 2018, with 14,900 arriving by sea in Spain and 13,100 in Greece. In total, about 471,000 migrants have reached Italy since 2015; over the same period, more than 1 million arrived in Greece and 75,900 in Spain.

The EU’s Dublin Regulation mandates that asylum-seekers must remain in the first country they reach. For years, this rule has disproportionately burdened Italy and Greece, and the Mediterranean nations have tried in vain to convince other members of the European Union to take a quota of refugees. Salvini’s new friends in Central and Eastern Europe have long been firm opponents of redistribution quotas and continue to refuse resettlement of refugees. According to the IOM, Austria has agreed to the relocation of 43 refugees, all of them from Italy; Slovakia accepted the relocation of just 16, all of them from Greece; and Slovenia has taken in 253, coming from both Italy and Greece.

On paper, the Five Star Movement, which won 33 percent of the vote, is the majority shareholder in Italy’s current cabinet, led by Prime Minister Conte, a law professor. But so far the League, which garnered only 17 of the national vote, has been setting the government’s priorities.

Salvini, who is serving as both interior minister and deputy prime minister, is in the spotlight much more than Conte or the Five Star leader, Luigi Di Maio. In its first month, Italy’s government has already launched a war on ships rescuing migrants (it closed ports to two of them, the Aquarius and the MV Lifeline) and against the Roma and Sinti minorities (by announcing a controversial ad hoc census of these populations) — both right-wing issues that have long been dear to the League. Since the cabinet came to power, the League has been steadily gaining in polls, while the Five Star movement has become less popular. Both parties are now polling at around 29 percent.

In late April, when the former Democratic Party-led government was still in power, Italy presented — together with Cyprus, Greece, Malta, and Spain — a position paper in which the Mediterranean countries asked for relaxation of the Dublin Regulation, including, for instance, facilitating family reunification for migrants who have relatives in other countries.

After the new government was sworn in, Italy’s position changed. When Bulgaria, which holds the rotating presidency at the Council of the EU, proposed a mild reform of the Dublin Regulation at the interior ministers’ summit on June 5, Italy voted against it, along with the Central European nations. The Mediterranean front was broken, and a new alliance was created. Salvini called it “victory.”

But Salvini, who has promised to reduce the number of asylum-seekers on Italian soil, has set his country up for a clash with his supposed friends in Central and Eastern Europe. If the Italian government really wants to reduce the number of migrants in its territory, it is not realistic to reach this goal only by reducing sea arrivals (which, in fact, are already declining). Italy, like other first-arrival countries, will also need other nations to take a share of asylum-seekers. The problem is, who would take them?

Germany and Sweden already have a disproportionally high number of asylum-seekers: In 2015, the migration crisis’s peak year, Germany received as many as 890,000 applications while Sweden received about 160,000. More recently, both countries have pursued policies aimed at curbing those figures. Austria agreed to take 90,000 refugees (from the Balkan route) in 2015 but since then has refused to participate in the resettlement of migrants. By contrast, Central European nations such as Hungary and Poland never took a significant share of refugees, and their governments strongly oppose the idea of relocation.

Federigo Argentieri, who teaches political science at John Cabot University in Rome, warned that Italy’s new stance could become a headache both for the EU and for NATO. “What these countries have in common is an attempt to weaken European and trans-Atlantic ties. They want to get their national sovereignty back, at the expenses of the EU and of NATO,” he said. “So, if they get their way, we’ll end up with a watered-down European Union, and the same could happen with NATO.” When it comes to migrant redistribution, there’s a basic conflict, but a new policy could emerge from the Visegrad-Italy alliance. “They seem to be pushing for stronger, shared control of Europe’s external borders,” Argentieri said.

That indeed seems to be the plan, according to League officials. “We want to go beyond the issues of quotas and [refugees’] relocation,” said Marco Pinti, a League district commissioner. “There’s no need to waste time about quotas that never worked anyway. We want to focus on creating EU-controlled hotspots in Africa,” he added. The idea is to create centers, controlled by the EU in African countries, where asylum-seekers could apply and from which they could be resettled, safely, in case their applications are accepted. Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron proposed the creation of hot spots in countries such as Chad and Niger. But critics fear they could easily become offshore detention camps, similar to the facilities that already exist in Libya, where human rights violations are common.

The paradox, of course, is that a group of Euroskeptic governments is now pushing for a shared EU project. But, Argentieri noted, it shouldn’t be mistaken as an actual step toward European integration. “It’s all about tactics, not strategy,” he argued.

“We don’t want to reform Dublin, because we want to radically rewrite it,” said Pinti, the League official. Italy’s aim — officially at least — is to curb migrant influx at the source rather than getting non-European nations to accept their share of refugees. They want to discourage immigration from its source, whether this means strengthening Frontex, the European border agency; getting Libyan militias to do the dirty work for Europe; or making sea travel even more dangerous than it already is by discouraging the work of NGO rescue ships — something more in line with the views of Visegrad populists than with other Mediterranean countries.

It’s still not clear if the League’s stated position is just propaganda to boost its popularity or if it could actually become policy. The Italian government’s official position has so far been much more measured. On June 24, when a group of EU leaders held an informal summit on immigration, Conte presented a 10-point proposal on behalf of Italy’s government. It stressed both the need to “strengthen [EU] external borders” and requested an end to the “first-arrival countries policy.” In other words, Italy is still asking non-Mediterranean countries to accept some migrants — which is precisely what Austria and Visegrad refuse to do.

Four days later, on June 28, when EU leaders met for a crucial summit on immigration, they reached a limited deal. The agreement did not establish resettlement quotas for refugees inside the EU, but it did include 500 million euros of aid for African countries and Turkey, aimed at curbing migration. It also included a vow to discourage onward migration from first arrival countries, such as Italy and Greace, to other EU nations. Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, claimed he was “satisfied.” But Lia Quartapelle, a senior Democratic Party lawmaker, described it as a “victory for Austria and Visegrad countries that is putting Italy under pressure.” The League press office refused to comment.

Anna Triandafyllidou, a professor of global governance at the European University Institute in Florence, believes that the Mediterranean front might not be dead after all. “Rejecting the proposed Dublin reform wasn’t really a bad thing for Mediterranean nations,” she said. Triandafyllidou argued that the proposed reform was modest in its ambition and wouldn’t have helped first-arrival countries much. By killing it, she said, “Italy put the issue back on the table,” and, as a result, there may be some hope that a more ambitious relocation plan could be discussed.

The problem with migration policy, Triandafyllidou pointed out, is that governments don’t get rewarded for acting rationally. “Immigration is something that can make you lose an election but cannot make you win an election,” she said.

Consequently, there’s a risk that Italy’s government could pursue propagandistic goals rather than rational ones. Salvini, more than anyone, is behaving as if he is permanently on the campaign trail. He issues inflammatory anti-immigration statements on almost a daily basis. Salvini is also waging a war against NGO rescue ships, preventing them from docking in Italian ports, which has created diplomatic and media turmoil but hasn’t had any significant impact on the number of sea arrivals. (Shortly after the Aquarius was rejected, the Italian coast guard brought more than 900 migrants on shore.) In other words, Salvini seems more interested in keeping public attention focused on immigration than on curbing actual numbers.

But sometimes geography trumps ideology. Despite all the rhetoric, Italy’s national interest is closely linked to its geographic location. The current government is trying to style Italy as an honorary member of the Visegrad club — but ultimately it is a Mediterranean country whose interests, when it comes to migration, are by definition closer to those of Spain and Greece. If Salvini and his colleagues really want to please their voters, they will eventually need to find a way to convince their Central and Eastern European buddies to do their part.

Anna Momigliano is a journalist based in Milan. Twitter: @annamomi

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