Matteo Salvini and the risk of populism

Matteo Salvini and the risk of populism

Recent disputes between Italy’s interior minister and the EU are symptomatic of the failure of member states and the EU as an institution to live up to their ideals. While several of the former are turning against the free flow of people within the EU, the latter has failed to quickly respond to the challenges of accommodating these migrants. 

Matteo Salvini, the head of the far-right political party the Northern League and Italy’s new anti-migrant interior minister, is the latest thorn in the EU’s side when it comes to immigration policy. Salvini has formed a pact with Hungary’s anti-migrant and pro-Russia president Viktor Orban, creating yet another significant rift between EU member states on the future of the bloc’s refugee asylum policy. Salvini and the populist Italian government is upset with Brussels and believes there should be more burden sharing among EU member states – something Italy takes seriously as a key point of entry for migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Libya and Tunisia. Over 200 migrants died in just three days over the summer trying to reach Italy, and the death toll for 2018 has already exceeded 1,000 people. These crossings have strained both the Libyan and Italian coast guards, as only half of those leaving Libya survive the perilous journey to Europe.

The  “Visegrad Four” – composed of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – have long been opposed to Brussels’ migrant policy, but Italy is the oldest EU member state and most prominent to take such a position. In a way, this is not surprising, given the sclerotic and reactionary nature of Italian politics due to internal party disputes over the past year and the thousands of refugees who continuously arrive on its shores. As one recent example, the Ubaldo Diciotti, a ship with 177 migrants on board had been docked in Sicily, and Salvini took the stance of not allowing any migrants to leave the ship until other EU nations offered to take them in. This led the chief prosecutor of the Italian province of Agrigento to place Salvini under investigation, although Salvini only backed down after Albania and Ireland offered to accept some of the migrants. While this may be a popular stance amongst populists in Europe and elsewhere, it is the opposite of how Chancellor Merkel, President Macron and other EU leaders wish to resolve the issue.

Brussels vs. the populists

The government in Italy poses a threat to EU leaders and their preferred migration policy. For many migrants making the long voyage across Africa from places like Eritrea, Nigeria and other conflict-ridden states, their entry and first point of contact with an EU member state is an unpleasant one. After years of terror attacks that also tested the Schengen Area of borderless travel, the EU is at a critical juncture in terms of how open it wishes to be and how freely people can travel within its own borders. Makeshift fences and governments that take migrants hostage while waiting for others to accept them are not viable long term solutions to a problem that cuts to the core of what a shared sense of European values and identity entails. Italy is one of the largest and oldest EU member states to test this principle and take a reactionary stance on key immigration and sovereignty issues.

Italy has now threatened to bar ships from the EU’s navy force from delivering migrants picked up in the Mediterranean to its shores, and is instead demanding that Brussels come up with a dramatic new way of sharing the burden posed by the refugee crisis. Current migration policy rests on the Dublin Regulation. This critical piece of EU legislation states that the point of entry should also be the processing state for all new asylum seekers, and has consequently made states such as Italy and Greece responsible for the vast majority of the migrants.

Burden sharing is a noble goal and arguably a value that fits with the original founding of the EU established with the Treaty of Rome, however a multilateral response that does not pit member states against one another is unlikely given the current political climate. Populist interior ministers and governments and their respective immigration policies demand a quick solutions which the slow-moving bureaucracy of the EU is unable to provide. The EU can be a check on their autocratic tendencies but it is unlikely to be the solution to any common refugee agenda so long as centrist politicians and the far-right and left are unable to come to a consensus. Italy has the right to bring the migrant crisis to the attention of leaders who may otherwise not be thinking about it on a regular basis. Whether Brussels will heed those concerns remains uncertain, but Italy’s challenge gets to the heart of what are core European values and areas of solidarity amongst member states.

Future prospects

Matteo Salvini is ultimately an interior minister who is ill-equipped to work within an EU member state, which represents a broader challenge of populist and nationalist governments worldwide and their approach to intergovernmental institutions. Salvini is not likely to be removed from his post and he is fulfilling some key campaign promises and inspiring other populist parties across the continent. Italy is currently rooted in a Euroskepticism that has found its voice through the ballot box and that is threatening the EU as well as the established mainstream political parties in Italy. Both Brussels and Rome, as well as Prague, Budapest and Bratislava are unlikely to come to a common consensus on this issue, and the ensuing standoff risks hurting the EU’s image on the global stage as a responsible humanitarian actor as well as a bloc that can deal across parties and 28 member states to collectively implement its own policies. The image of individual EU member states holding ships and migrants hostage in the Mediterranean or along makeshift fences may be a win for the populists but it is a loss for the liberal institutionalism upon which the EU was founded. Salvini has pointed out many of the flaws within the EU’s migration policy and he has raised some considerable points. His party, the League, has also seen a boost in the polls, with support rising from 17% in March to 30% right after the Genoa bridge collapse earlier in August. In short, anti-EU sentiment and reactionary policies may help the League but it is unlikely to help Italy gain friends in Brussels and position itself to be a responsible actor in the EU. Italy has not shown itself to be capable of upholding the values instituted by the bloc when it comes to migration, but neither has the EU stepped up to the plate to provide leadership in a proper burden sharing role. This perhaps is Salvini’s greatest impact.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Alexander Brotman

Alexander Brotman received an MSc in International Relations from The University of Edinburgh. He previously was a researcher with the Center for a New American Security in Washington and has been published with PassBlue, a digital publication covering the UN, as well as Cable, an online global affairs magazine published by the Scottish Global Forum. His research interests include European politics, NATO and Russian foreign and security policy.