“A social bomb ready to explode in Italy” claimed octogenarian former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi during a TV interview two weeks ago. He was referring to the huge number of immigrants who have flooded into Italy in recent years. “Immigration has become an urgent question, because after years with a left-wing coalition, there are 600,000 migrants who don’t have the right to stay,” he said. Even allowing for hyperbole, immigration is a hot topic in the run-up to elections on 4 March, which will determine Italy’s future and possibly that of the European Union (EU).

Tensions rose the day before the interview when a far-right extremist shot six Africans in Macerata, a small town in Northern Italy. Arrested at the scene of the drive-by attack, the extremist Luca Traini, a 28-year-old former failed candidate for the right wing Northern League in local elections last year, had especially targeted asylum seekers. Distancing himself from the shooting, the Northern League leader, Matteo Salvini, claimed that it was the “invasion of migrants” which was the root of a “social clash”. He continued, “I can’t wait to get into government to restore security, social justice and serenity in Italy”.

Geography has placed Italy in the front line for immigration from Africa, being a popular landing point on Europe’s southern coastline. Thousands have attempted the perilous crossing from Libya over recent years, many of them losing their lives in the process. Last year was a turning point, following a controversial agreement between the EU and Libya. Large-scale arrivals in the first six months reduced sharply, showing a 35% drop with just 119,000 migrants landing in Italy. Nevertheless, the Libyan agreement hangs by a thread and a surge in migration to Italy could happen when the weather improves from March onwards, exactly the time of the Italian elections.

The EU is in turmoil over immigration. The current policy, formulated as the Dublin regulation, requires the country in which asylum seekers arrive to be responsible for them. This, of course, puts enormous pressure on frontline countries such as Italy, Greece and Spain, who are insisting that a revised policy of mandatory or voluntary quotas on all EU countries be rigorously implemented for those migrants entitled to international protection. Burden sharing, they insist, is the only way in which front-line countries can survive without being saturated with immigrants, resulting in a huge backlash from the indigenous population. The problem for the EU, however, is how to force countries which are reluctant to accept mandatory quotas to fall into line with the policy. Many have refused, causing the European Council President Donald Tusk (himself a former Prime Minister of Poland, a country which so far has refused to take any immigrants) to admit in December that “the issue of mandatory quotas has proven to be highly divisive and the approach has turned out to be ineffective”. Italy, Spain and Greece reacted furiously to Tusk’s words as they are paying a high price for the failure and are demanding that the EU Commission takes action to enforce the Mandatory Quotas policy. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who controversially accepted a million refugees in 2015 and who is now paying a high political price for such benevolence, was said to be “deeply irritated”. Immigration played a huge part in her poor showing at the Federal elections last year.

Immigration has caused a deep East/West fracture along the Eastern part of the EU. Known as the Visegrad 4, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia have taken a hard line against any form of immigration. Following the elections of October last year, it is likely that Austria, under its firebrand 31-year-old leader Sebastian Kurz, will join the 4 to create a formidable bloc, resistant to the principle of solidarity, one of the main pillars of the European project. If this happens, and if the EU is determined to use any form of enforcement action, it could signal the end of the EU in its present form.

For many years, the Euro was seen to be the potential catalyst for an EU break-up. The Calvinist work ethic of the Northern countries considered the Southern states to be lazy, with long holidays and early retirement, placing an impossible stress on their finances. For this reason, countries such as Germany refused to accept any form of fiscal union which would have resulted in huge amounts of Northern cash flowing to the South. This refusal has always hampered the concept of “ever closer union”, the dream of Europhiles. Countless experts, including Nobel prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, have predicted that the Euro project will end in failure. The question is: will this North/South euro fracture happen before the East/West immigration one?

We might soon have an indication when Italy goes to the polls in two weeks. Centre–right parties, many of them fiercely anti-immigration, are currently polling at 37%, with the centre-left at 27% and the maverick Five Star party polling 28%. History indicates that there is a significant “shy-factor” in the right-wing electorate, possibly due to reluctance to admit that they are politically right-wing, so the figure of 37% might be understated. The election is being held under a new and untested electoral law and a coalition appears to be inevitable.

Immigration was a key issue in the Brexit referendum in 2016, resulting in the decision to leave the EU. It caused Merkel an enormous headache in her Federal elections. Anti-immigration forces are firmly in place in Eastern Europe and the front-line countries of Italy and Greece feel themselves to be in a perilous position of being swamped with immigrants. Unless the EU can achieve an effective and enforceable immigration policy, its future is indeed bleak. 

John Dobson worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998 and is presently Chairman of the Plymouth University of the Third Age.

 

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