The EU needs to relaunch its original project as a federal union of states, says Laura Boldrini, president of Italy's Chamber of Deputies. She spoke to DW about the migrant crisis, populism and rising inequality.
DW: Since the start of the year more than 94,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean to Italy. Faced with an epochal tragedy of these dimensions, Europe is closing its borders and local authorities in Italy often show impatience. How did we get to this point?
Laura Boldrini: We have come to this point through a combination of reasons to which we have closed our eyes for too long. In Africa, there are so many unresolved conflicts and an exaggerated concentration of wealth in the hands of small elites, which force many to seek better living conditions elsewhere. Then, there is the egoism and myopia of so many European states. Not of Europe, but of some of its members: I wish to make this distinction, because the EU Commission has for the last two years already indicated the path of relocation that would have made it easier to handle the problem.
Has this phenomenon been underestimated?
It seems obvious to me. Clinging to the illusion that wars, dictatorships, famines could develop near our home without us Europeans paying the price. And we Italians, in particular, have continued to consider 'emergency' - an exceptional and unpredictable phenomenon - as an issue that is by now clearly structural, and therefore requires not improvised but long-term responses.
The latest statements by some eastern European countries show a lack of solidarity on Europe's behalf. Do you think that after the decision of the European Court of Justice [which is expected to rule on the legality of EU members being obliged to accept the relocation of asylum-seekers from elsewhere in the bloc - the eds.], relocation is likely to follow?
I very much hope so, because on the redistribution of migrants the European Union is gambling much of its credibility. A community where someone only takes part when there is a substantial economic benefit to be had cannot last. For this reason, it is good that the Commission has launched - as I have long been proposing - infringement proceedings against those who back away from applying common decisions. There are not only financial parameters that must be met.
Meanwhile, the Italian government has put a stop to jus soli, the law granting birthright citizenship to the children of immigrants. Does this remain a priority for you?
Of course, because there can be no political speculation about the right of hundreds of thousands of 'de facto Italians.' Those who talk of 'easy citizenship' are lying: The criteria for approval are selective and rigorous. And this works against the security of Italy, because outright exclusion can only generate resentment and hostility. Citizenship is the goal that facilitates integration, the most effective tool to produce true security.
According to a study by the research institutes Epicenter and Timbro, there has been "inexorable growth" in populist forces in Europe. Are you worried about this phenomenon?
It is an alarming phenomenon, which has caught the European Union at its weakest in its history. But being steadfast and hoping the storm passes by itself is not the answer. Europe is also paying for its incomplete construction. To the populist pressure, to the disruptive forces that advocate an anachronistic return to national borders, one must respond by relaunching the original project: the federal union of states. Only then can the European states, big or small, have any hope of still being relevant in world competition.
Do you believe that the politics of austerity have contributed to fostering the growth of populism?
Austerity has been the most valuable ally for populists, because it has shown the tough, overruling side of the European Union. A toughness that has been of no use in counteracting the crisis. If we want to stop playing the populists' game, Europe needs to rediscover its social vocation, putting work and sustainable development at the center of its programs. Brussels must point out that it has noticed the dramatic thinning of the middle class, an unsustainable youth unemployment. One way could be, for example, a European unemployment allowance. If the EU did this, the perception of its citizens would radically change.
The growth rates of the Italian economy are higher than expected. In 2017 GDP could reach 1.4 percent. However, according to figures published by Italy's statistics institute, Istat, 4.7 million people were living in absolute poverty in 2016. Is politics capable of giving answers to those who are sidelined?
Politics has not yet understood that growing inequality is the number one problem to answer today. We have come to the point that the social crisis is eroding the very basis of democracy in many states. Citizens think: 'What is the use of democracy if it does not provide a decent pension for me or a job for my child?' A few days ago, the news that the CEO of Telecom Italia left the company with a 25-million-euro ($29 million) severance package after 16 months - not 16 years - of work caused quite a stir in Italy. This becomes unbearable when the measures taken against poverty in the last few months can benefit only a third of those who live in absolute poverty with an investment of about 1.2 billion a year.
You are often referred to as a possible leader of a left-wing coalition. Would it not be important to entrust a woman with the responsibility of uniting the different voices of the left?
I do not talk about myself, because there is already more than enough egotism going around. I will point out, however, that the pages of the newspapers that deal with the left have a picture kit identical to those that could be taken in a conclave. Strictly males. There is something that grates with the path that Italian society has taken in recent decades. What's more, giving women a voice, representing them, is not just right, it is also useful: They make up more than half the electorate. What is the left waiting for to notice?
Laura Boldrini has been president of Italy's Chamber of Deputies since 2013. Before that she was a spokesperson for the UN refugee agency UNHCR for 14 years.