Italy Becomes More Anti-Immigrant and Anti-EU

Italy Becomes More Anti-Immigrant and Anti-EU

Unemployment, population decline, changes in immigration, and world events like the COVID-19 pandemic and war in Syria and Libya are strengthening Italian anti-immigrant and anti-EU parties and their chances for national power.

Immigration and anti-EU rhetoric will play an increasingly important role in upcoming regional and national elections in Italy. This will likely help Matteo Salvini, and his anti-immigrant League party and Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy party win elections in regions that have historically supported left-of-centre politicians. The combination of domestic concerns and international events surrounding immigration issues could further allow the League, the Brothers of Italy, and the 5-Star Movement to gain national power, move Italian politics to the right, and harm Italy’s relations with the EU.

Immigration in Italy by the numbers

Overall illegal immigration to Italy has dropped in recent years. Eleven thousand five hundred migrants arrived in Italy by boat in 2019, compared to 181,000 in 2016. However, there has been a significant increase in immigrants arriving on Italian shores by sea in 2020. Despite the overall drop, Italy’s anti-immigrant parties continue to call for stronger border enforcement, more deportations of migrants already in Italy, and changes to asylum rules.

Even though Salvini failed in his attempt in August 2019 to bring his League party to power, his anti-immigrant platform continues to make advances in regional elections. The election in Umbria in October 2019 of Donatella Tesei, backed by the League, is one example. More recently in Emilia-Romagna, the League came close to unseating the centre-left regional government that has been in power for seven decades. Although the centre-left won a majority, looking at the distribution of votes across parties, the League is only 2 percentage points behind the centre-left. The League candidate lost by about 100,000 votes, of more than 2.2 million votes cast. Anti-immigrant policies were the main plank of their candidate’s platform.

Domestic Italian concerns

Italy’s domestic population is in decline. In 2019, Italy’s overall population fell by 116,000 to 60.3 million. A steady rise in immigrant births helped to offset the declining domestic birth rate, but the decline remained. The loss of population can be seen most clearly in rural Italy, especially in the South, a phenomenon referred to as rural emptying. Between 2000 and 2018 rural Italy lost almost 800,000 residents.

Young Italians are moving to larger cities or other countries, leaving only older people in the villages. Some rural villages are even resorting to selling properties for one euro if the buyer promises to live in the town and maintain the property. The decline of Italians living in these areas, combined with immigrant arrivals, have led some Italians to claim that Italy is becoming less Italian. These trends are causing anxiety among ordinary Italians, who feel their way of life is threatened and must be protected from outside influence.

Anti-immigrant sentiment is felt amongst the youth as well as older Italians, even in prosperous regions. One cause for this sentiment is high youth unemployment. At 29% even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Italy’s youth unemployment rate is one of the highest in the Eurozone. Consequently, many Italians leave Italy to find work in other countries.

Many of the unemployed blame immigrants and EU policies for the situation. They feel the centre-left parties have failed them and so the League, the Brothers of Italy, and the 5-Star Movement draw some of the youth votes. In recent pre-polling election data, the 5-Star Movement won the support of 31 percent of those aged 18 to 22 and 35 percent of those aged 23 to 28. With the 5-Star Movement dropping in recent polls, some of the youth support will go to the League and possibly to the Brothers of Italy.

Where immigrants are coming from has also changed. In the years after Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU, many migrants came from those countries. In 2019 the largest number of official migrants came from Tunisia (2,654), followed by Pakistan and Ivory Coast with more than 1,100 each. Many Pakistanis and Tunisians in Italy own, run, and maintain vegetable stands and other small shops. The newly arrived immigrants find it more difficult to integrate than previous waves because they are culturally, racially, and religiously more distinct from Italians.

International events

In addition to domestic issues, international events are helping anti-immigrant parties. The COVID-19 outbreak means that 60 million Italians only recently exited government-imposed lockdown, isolation, and travel bans. Italy has had one of the highest case counts in Europe, and the outbreak was centred around the northern economic hubs of Lombardy, Veneto, and Emilia-Romagna. The effects on the Italian economy have been extreme and are not yet fully being felt.

Additionally, Salvini, Meloni and other anti-immigrant, anti-EU politicians have used the crisis to call for tighter borders and to blame immigrants and foreign tourists for bringing the virus to Italy. They also blame the EU for acting too slowly and ignoring Italy. Meloni quipped:

“When the coronavirus was just an Italian problem it didn’t interest anyone in the EU. They only did things when the virus arrived in Germany.”

Salvini for his part has called for a tough approach, including closing all borders. As the true scale of the damage to the Italian economy becomes clearer and unemployment increases, anti-immigrant parties will find more support for the view that Italy must protect itself from the outside world. The latest Politico poll shows the League polling at 26%, 5-Star at 16%, and Brothers of Italy at 15%.

Other global crises are also having an effect. Continued fighting in Idlib province in Syria has created 1 million refugees, with many of them heading to Europe, as evidenced by recent migrant clashes on the Greco-Turkish border. Turkey allows Syrian refugees to pass through its territory unimpeded. As cracks in Syria’s ruling elite begin to increase, it is likely there will be more unrest.

Additionally, the conflict in Libya is hardening as both sides procure arms and prepare for a long fight. Foreign powers (Turkey, Russia and Egypt) are sending arms, mercenaries, and troops into the country, and UN flights providing humanitarian assistance have been blocked from entry. Any large uptick in fighting is sure to create refugees and increase the number of migrants seeking to reach Italy by boat. Libya is a transit point for migrants from other sub-Saharan African countries, so more chaos there will impede any efforts by Libyan authorities to stop the migrant flow across the Mediterranean. Both Italy and the EU need to form coherent policies on these matters quickly and have so far failed to do so.

Italy is a unique bellwether for anti-immigrant and anti-EU feeling across Europe. Anti-immigrant and anti-EU politicians in Italy are adept at exploiting the local issues and world events currently driving “Italy First” sentiments. Salvini and Meloni are the Italian politicians to watch in the coming months as domestic concerns and international events could allow their parties to gain national power, move Italian politics to the right, and harm Italy’s relations with the EU.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author