Editor’s Note: Andrea Mammone is a historian at Royal Holloway, University of London, who writes and comments on European politics and the far right. Follow @Andrea_Mammone on Twitter. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
The new Italian government is making international headlines – and not necessarily for its generosity. Interior Minister Matteo Salvini refused to allow the Aquarius, a vessel carrying more than 600 migrants, to dock on Sunday. Fortunately for those on board the Aquarius, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has offered them refuge.
And yet, despite the many criticisms of Italy’s handling of the situation, Salvini has not relented from his hard-line position. In fact, he continues to tweet with the hashtag #chiudiamoiporti (“let’s shut the ports”) and to claim victory because Italy, as the he sees it, is standing in defiance of international treaties and European Union agreements on the protection of migrants, human rights and asylum claims.
But why did Italy turn its back on these migrants while Spain appears willing to embrace its humanitarian (and moral) obligations? Because the two governments are following opposing political ideologies, each of which has, with varying degrees, taken root on the continent. One embraces some of the core values of the European Union – including a belief in universal citizens’ rights, solidarity and loyalty among member states. The other reverts back to nationalism and puts country before pan-European interests.
In this dichotomy, Italy reflects the latter – though that is a recent change. Up until 2017, Italy had been welcoming many refugees. Last year, in fact, the country reviewed more than 128,000 asylum applications.
The Italians have now handed over the reins of control to right-wing nationalists – specifically the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the far right-wing League, the two parties to win the most seats in the March elections.
They are following in the footsteps of Austria and Hungary – which, respectively, gave a majority to elected anti-immigrant forces in 2017 and re-elected anti-Islam euroskeptics in 2018.
The Five Star Movement is led by Luigi Di Maio, but most of the party’s leaders have little to no political experience. This citizens-led movement, founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, gained attention and votes by challenging corruption in Italian establishment politics. However, the party didn’t receive a majority of the votes. Di Maio needed to form a coalition, and he joined forces with League, perhaps the most vocal euroskeptic party to campaign.
The League played directly into Italian fears of migrants and refugees – using them as scapegoats for the state of the Italian economy and high unemployment. Although the League is the “junior” coalition partner, Salvini – the interior minister and League party leader – is strongly influencing and radicalizing the governmental agenda.
Internationally, the League is part of the Europe of Nations and Freedom group. This is the main far-right coalition in the EU Parliament, which includes Marine Le Pen’s National Front and the Austrian Freedom Party. The group claims that “European cultures, our values and our freedom are under attack. They are threatened by the crushing and dictatorial powers of the European Union. They are threatened by mass immigration, by open borders and by a single European currency: one size does not fit all.”
In contrast, Spain is now led by the Socialist party, the PSOE, and seems to embrace a more open and progressive approach to immigration and the EU. Though it’s worth nothing that Spain, which until recently was governed by a center-right government, took in far fewer asylum applicants in 2017 than Italy – just more than 30,000.
That said, the longevity of the Sanchez government remains in question. He became Prime Minister only after a no-confidence motion led to the collapse of Mariano Rajoy’s government. The PSOE only has 84 seats out of 350 in parliament – and its pro-immigration policy might determine its fate in a country facing similar issues to Italy in terms of sluggish economic growth and unemployment.
Of course, immigration policy isn’t a perfect ideological dichotomy. Countries that would seemingly be pro-immigration struggle to welcome and integrate refugees and, at the same time, deal with unemployment, far-right xenophobic forces and the concerns of their population. Emmanuel Macron’s France is continuing a recent tradition of stopping and deporting immigrants attempting to cross the north-western Franco-Italian border; Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is now pushing for stricter national asylum rules. This led him to call for a Rome-Vienna-Berlin “axis … in the fight against illegal migration.”
Regardless, while we wait for the Aquarius to reach Spanish shores, we can be certain that other vessels will soon find themselves in limbo. And they, like their predecessor, will be emblematic of the struggle for Europe’s democracy – one that places the most vulnerable people at the heart of an ongoing political clash.