Arrivals from Africa are destabilising Italy's government
Giorgia Meloni is facing her biggest crisis yet. Over the past week, the small Italian island of Lampedusa, located closer to Tunisia than to the Italian mainland (and, indeed, to Sicily), has been overwhelmed by over 10,000 migrants — significantly more than the island’s 7,000 inhabitants. Since January, more than 130,000 people have reached the country’s shores from North Africa, twice the number from the same period last year.
Meloni — whose electoral success was based, to a large degree, on a promise to get tough on immigration — is under growing pressure to do something about it. She has vowed this week that Europe cannot treat her country like a “refugee camp”, yet, like every Italian PM from the past decade, Meloni has also appealed to the EU for help.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen flew to Lampedusa on Sunday and offered a vague plan to assist Italy in addressing the migrant crisis. But Meloni should know as well as anyone that no concrete help is going to come from Brussels. Over the years, every attempt to find an EU-wide solution to Italy’s migrant problem has failed, and there’s no reason to believe this time will be any different.
Indeed, the day after von der Leyen’s visit to Lampedusa, France’s interior minister Gérald Darmanin told his counterpart in Rome that France would not take in any migrants arriving on Lampedusa. “It would be an error of judgement to say migrants should be redistributed around Europe and France,” he said. France has even reportedly tightened security along its border with Italy.
It should be clear by now, after Europe’s decade of quasi-permanent crisis, that this lack of solidarity between member states is a feature, not a bug, of the EU. Meloni’s insistence on a “European solution” that is impossible by definition thus appears to be yet another testament to her political impotence. This is especially true when considering that much of the responsibility for the recent surge in migrant arrivals rests on the EU itself.
In the backdrop is a €255 million deal signed between the EU and Tunisia in July to help stem illegal migration, mostly to Italy, from the African nation which has become one of the most popular routes for people smugglers. The initiative was spearheaded by the European Commission and Meloni. However, since it was signed, the number of people crossing from Tunisia to Italy has gone up by almost 70%. Crucially, none of the promised funds have been disbursed to Tunisia.
It was recently revealed that various member states, led by EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, have been working behind the scenes to sabotage the deal. In a letter to the Commission dated 7 September, Borrell wrote that “in July, several member states expressed their incomprehension regarding the Commission’s unilateral action on the conclusion of this [memorandum of understanding] and concerns about some of its contents.”
These concerns officially referred to the poor human rights record of the Tunisian government. However, there is reason to believe that the deal was unacceptable in the eyes of some governments and EU representatives ideologically opposed to Meloni because the Commission negotiated the deal directly with Italy’s “far-Right” government, to the latter’s benefit. Hence the decision to disrupt proceedings.
In this sense, we might say that there are some actors within the EU which are using the Tunisian route as a “weapon of mass migration” to destabilise Italy and put pressure on the Meloni government. There’s no easy, short-term solution to Italy’s migrant problem, but any solution will necessarily have to be a unilateral one. Meloni likely understands this — the problem is that she also knows she needs to stay in the EU’s good graces to remain in power. Meanwhile, under the weight of such contradictions, Italy continues to fracture.