EU, Italy and Migration Crisis: All Against All

On June 24, 2018, the informal EU summit had its first real showdown on the migrant crisis, and it is only the beginning. The European club seriously risks implosion on how to manage the epochal exodus of millions of people from Africa and the Middle East. And on Sunday in Brussels among others there were eight countries – France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Greece, Austria, Bulgaria, Malta, with the exception of new last-minute accessions – which were united by a single common interest: defending their national positions in the Council in order to arrive at the EU summit at the end of June with a more or less agreed platform, hoping to impose it on other member states.

Until recently the problem was how to get tough with the so-called “Visegrad group” (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, with the growing support of Austria), which is determined not to accept the migrants “quotas” provided by previous European agreements. They punctually disregarded the informal summit. But now the real problem is that the EU has at least four groups of countries with different priorities and goals: Germany and France, which do not want migrants coming from Italy and in general from the South or the Balkans; the Mediterranean countries that contest the European rules, according to which the “first approach states” are responsible for the asylum claims from start to finish; the East European group that does not want to speak about refugees at all; and finally all the others, who are tired of the emergency migration situation on the agenda and the growing expenses in the European budget.

The coming to power in Italy of a sovereign-populist coalition (the League that took the helm of the center-right and the 5 Star Movement) detonated the conflict which was substantially tabled in recent years. In fact, it is precisely the “denial” of the problem, or unsuccessful attempts of its management that fueled the nationalist electoral advance everywhere, from Germany to France and lastly Italy, where Interior Minister Matteo Salvini completely changed the rules of the game, using words and methods never seen in the capitals of the five EU founding countries.

It never happened before that Italy closed its ports to a ship full of refugees as Salvini did with the Aquarius, which Spain finally received. No minister in Rome had ever called ships full of refugees “a cruise” and “easy street” for sea travel from Africa. Never any minister had openly dictated to the premier (in this case the evanescent Giuseppe Conte, chosen by the Five Stars Movement, but de facto hostage of the League politics) what to do and what to say to the European partners. The asymmetric activism of Salvini has put in difficulty Paris and Berlin, used to agreeing every step with the Italian government, even during the exuberant Silvio Berlusconi years. And if Angela Merkel continues to seek mediation, as it is in her character, French President Emmanuel Macron has chosen the clash, coming to talk about Italian politics as “cynical, irresponsible” and even “advancing populist leprosy.”

The Elysee Palace’s viewpoint is directed against the League leader, but in reality this unprecedented clash is especially convenient for Salvini himself. The Franco-Italian short-circuit certainly does not facilitate Angela Merkel’s task, who is at daggers’ points with her own interior minister, Horst Seehofer, promoter of a much harsher line toward migrants. The chancellor has signaled her willingness to keep in mind the Italian worries.

In this situation of all against all, the EU is going through a phase of continuous emergency situation, which overshadows other urgent issues: Donald Trump’s neo-protectionism, Brexit, the end of the European Central Bank’s quantitative easing policy (purchases of securities of individual states) that could trigger new financial crises in some member states, starting from Italy, burdened by an increasingly less sustainable public debt.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.