Whoever wins the next Italian election is bound to promise to get tougher on immigration. Voters are increasingly concerned about the issue, though it is far from obvious that the country is going through an “immigration crisis.” Pro-immigration advocates harp on Italy’s need to expand its labor force and shore up its social security system, but the point is hardly winning hearts and minds. A deciding factor in the upcoming elections between the left, the right and the populist Five Star Movement could be the contestants’ ability to take a credible, tough position on the issue.
According to a 2016 Eurobarometer analysis, immigration is perceived by 49 percent of Italians as Europe’s most significant challenge. As many as 42 percent also consider it the most important domestic issue, though more Italians (47 percent) rank unemployment at the top. Tellingly, these figures far outstrip concern about terrorism, which is rated as the most serious European issue by 23 percent of Italians and the most pressing problem domestically by only 8 percent. While fear of immigration and fear of terrorist attacks are often conflated, Italian voters seem to distinguish sharply between the two.
Politically speaking, immigration is hardly an unexploited subject. For some 15 years now, it has been used as a propaganda cudgel by the Northern League.
The League was founded on the plank of federalism and lower taxes, and it briefly flirted with the idea of secession. After proving quite ineffective in achieving these goals, the party shifted to peddling closed-borders rhetoric. Its electoral base is still concentrated in Italy’s north. About a third of foreign-born Italian residents live in the northwestern part of the country, and another 20 percent in the northeast. The League is rapidly growing in central Italy, where it won a substantial number of mayoralties in the recent local elections. Another 20 percent of the foreign-born residents have settled in these central regions, whereas only 11 percent have chosen to live in the south.
The psychological underpinning of the backlash appears to be simple. Locals typically resent the allegedly excessive comforts, luxuries even, extended to the immigrants in their towns. It is true that local governments often accommodate the newcomers in hotels (this is the “luxury” part), but that is far from the rule. Frequently, the migrants endure real hardship in refugee camps.
A certain degree of reserve toward outsiders is understandable: it is a deeply-rooted sentiment in all human groups. It reinforces the internal solidarity of communities and, as such, may even have a positive impact. It is also worth remembering that Italy went through a tumultuous social transformation in the mid-20th century. Before World War II, the country was predominantly agricultural, and only by the 1970s did it join Europe’s industrial heavyweights. That revolution was accompanied by mass migration of labor, most typically from the south to the northern parts of the country, where industry was (and remains) concentrated. During that transformation, these population movements also were met with a degree of anxiety and hostility. After all, as late as in 1860, these would not have been internal relocations, but cross-border migrations from other Italian states.
But does today’s emotional disquiet point to a true “immigration crisis” that authorities should tackle? According to the Ministry of Interior Affairs, in the first 10 months of 2017, the number of migrants arriving in Italy by the Mediterranean was 110,412, down 24.5 percent from the same period in 2016. During the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015, Italy recorded an influx of 280,100 migrants (83,970 of them asylum applicants), a modest figure in comparison to Germany, which took in 1,543,800 immigrants during that fateful year.
In 2016, 181,436 migrants (123,600 of them asylum applicants) arrived by sea to Italy. High as these figures may seem, Italy is a country of 60 million inhabitants with a negative demographic balance, even counting the inflow of migrants. Last year the country’s population declined by 76,106, according to Italy’s National Institute for Statistics (Istat).
The pro-immigration argument used most frequently in Italy is the need for fresh blood to be pumped into the veins of its social security system. The state pension system, after a 2011 reform, is among the most solid in the EU. Its longer-term viability, however, is predicated on a regular inflow of new workers who will support future pensioners. Economist Tito Boeri, the president of Italy’s social security administration (INPS), has emphasized the point over and over, stressing that immigrants are net contributors to the system. Politically, though, this point has limited traction.
Critics point out that, historically, the country is experiencing an absolute peak for immigration: in 2011, during the so called “Arab Spring” revolts in the Middle East, Italy counted 63,000 new arrivals, whereas in the 2000s the average was about 20,000 a year.
Growing immigration is not just an Italian problem, however. Most of the migrants who reach Italy’s shores seem to want to settle elsewhere in Europe; for them, Italy functions mainly as a transit country. This may explain some rather theatrical gestures by Italy’s neighbors. Austria, for example, sent troops to patrol the Brenner Pass and block migrants from crossing the Alpine border with Italy. Vienna’s move was interpreted by the Italian government’s domestic critics as a sign of weakness and added to the general anxiety.
Rightly or not, most Italians perceive the immigration crisis as real, and tough talk on immigration is no longer the exclusive preserve of the Northern League. Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, for example, has adopted a popular slogan of the right that Italy should “help migrants [while they are still] at home.” Most recently, Marco Minniti, the new interior minister, has styled himself as an immigration hard-liner. Since more than 40 percent of migrants at sea are now rescued by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), Mr. Minniti, a former Communist Party member, has imposed new rules on those organizations, supposedly to make sure that their vessels are not colluding with criminal trafficking gangs in North Africa. While right-wing groups often made such allegations, NGOs have traditionally been darlings of the Italian left. No longer.
The interior minister is credited for a sharp decline in sea arrivals over the summer. Since January 2017, the influx has gone down significantly, as we have seen. This supposedly resulted from Mr. Minniti’s strategy of negotiating deals with the trafficking tribes in Libya.
In politics, perception is reality. We should not expect the tone of Italy’s immigration debate to soften anytime soon. With the next general election coming in early 2018, polls show gains by the center-right, perhaps because it is perceived as consistently tough on immigration.
As we have already written, Italy’s new electoral law will loom large in determining the winner in 2018. Parliament is still haggling over the draft legislation, but it appears likely that a new, mixed system will be confirmed, with most seats awarded by proportional representation and about one-third elected in single-member constituencies.
How this will influence the election result is not entirely clear. When it comes to immigration, Italian politicians appear to believe that there is no market for a more liberal approach. The Northern League is traditionally a hard-liner, and Matteo Renzi, who retains control of the Democratic Party, is trying to join the club. The big question mark is how the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) will behave.
Five Star officials typically come from the hard left, which tends to focus on solidarity and despise any talk of national identity as a harbinger of fascism. But M5S leader Beppe Grillo is known for keeping his finger on the pulse of public opinion, and he has taken a noticeably harder line in recent months. When a building illegally occupied by migrants in the center of Rome was cleared by police, resulting in some clashes with the squatters and their far-left supporters, Rome’s Mayor Virginia Raggi – a member of M5S – refused to criticize the authorities.
Oddly, the only major Italian political figure speaking on immigration in measured tones is the octogenarian media mogul Silvio Berlusconi – who appears to be plotting a comeback. The three-time prime minister, known to Italians as man of optimism, would be an unlikely candidate to succeed as a peddler of immigration gloom and doom. Mr. Berlusconi has been careful not to annoy Catholic voters, perhaps the only constituency that may still favor more liberal immigration policies.
Could it be that Mr. Berlusconi will end up, on this issue, as the least populist of Italian politicians?