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Italien Symbolbild Rettung von Flüchtlinge
Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Paduano

Italy's populists pile pressure on Germany's Merkel

Chase Winter
June 17, 2018

Italy's new government appears at loggerheads with Germany on migration. But dig deeper and there is common room to cooperate despite the rhetoric.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Italian counterpart Giuseppe Conte meet in Berlin on Monday, as Germany's coalition risks fracturing over migration and the European Union faces a mounting crisis over its failure to develop new asylum regulations.

The new Italian prime minister's visit comes fresh on the heels of a meeting on Friday with Merkel's key partner in the EU, French President Emmanuel Macron, in Paris, where the two called for asylum processing centers to be set up in migrant countries of origin and transit, including in Africa.

Conte and Macron also called for "profound" changes to the EU's asylum rules, the so-called Dublin Regulation, which requires migrants to be registered and assessed on their eligibility to be granted asylum in the first EU country in which they arrive, which is usually Greece or Italy.

Read more: Italian PM Giuseppe Conte calls for EU immigration reform 

Conte is likely to bring two main demands on migration to Berlin: a revamp of EU asylum rules under the principle that "those who set foot in Italy, set foot in Europe," and setting up asylum processing centers outside the EU.

Similarly, Macron will meet Merkel on Tuesday hoping to reach agreement on increased funding for the EU's Frontex border force, harmonized asylum rules and the creation of asylum processing centers in Africa ahead of the key EU summit at the end of June. 

Italy ramps up the pressure

On the surface, things look ugly between Berlin and the new government in Rome, made up of the anti-immigrant League and anti-establishment M5S. 

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who heads the League and doubles as deputy prime minister, has used his new position to ramp up the rhetoric and prevent NGO ships from rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean.

He triggered a major diplomatic row this week when Rome blocked the NGO ship Aquarius from docking in Italy with more than 600 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean. 

Read more: Aquarius migrant rescue ship docks in Spain following rejection by Italy

The move represented an opening salvo from Salvini, who has vowed to deport tens of thousands of migrants and block foreign NGO migrant rescue ships from docking at Italy's ports. Meanwhile, the Italian navy continues to save migrants and bring them to Italian reception centers.

Italy has taken in nearly 700,000 migrants and refugees since 2013, mostly Africans who crossed the Mediterranean on boats from war-torn Libya. The failure of the EU's 2015 migrant sharing scheme has left Italy feeling abandoned.

Salvini enters crisis in Berlin

Against this backdrop, Berlin witnessed a chaotic week as infighting between Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its conservative sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU), rattled her government.

At the heart of the dispute is the demand from Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, of the CSU, to allow border police to turn back migrants who lack valid identity papers, have had their asylum request rejected in another country, or are already registered in another EU country.

Read more: Germany's political crisis over asylum: What happens now?

Merkel wants a common European solution and bilateral agreements with EU countries most affected by incoming migrants and asylum-seekers, such as Italy and Greece. She fears harsh measures will threaten the EU's border free zone, and has asked for two weeks to find a solution ahead of a critical EU leaders summit at the end of June.

Meanwhile, Salvini has entered the fray in Berlin, saying he and Seehofer are in "full agreement" on migration policy and a plan to protect Europe's external borders. Seehofer has also found a supporter in conservative Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, a vocal critic of Merkel's migration policy since 2015.

To protect EU borders, Kurz has suggested an "axis of the willing" between Austria and the interior ministers of Germany and Italy, as well as anti-immigrant EU members Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Read more: Austria's Sebastian Kurz wants a migration 'axis of the willing' with Germany, Italy

Substance versus rhetoric

Yet, Salvini's approach to migration may work against Italy's interests, although not his immediate domestic political goals. He is rhetorically allying himself with central and eastern European countries that are largely responsible for the failure of a collective EU response to migration and asylum reform.

Meanwhile, Seehofer's proposal that Germany turn away migrants could trigger a domino effect of closed borders across Europe that would hit Italy as a frontline state.

"There is difference between substance and rhetoric coming out of Italy. From Salvini's perspective it makes perfect sense," said Daniele Albertazzi, a senior lecturer in European politics at the University of Birmingham.

The League and M5S entered an odd alliance following the March elections, with little known Conte, unaffiliated with either party but close to M5S, as head of government. In effect, he is a coordinator and mediator at the bidding of the two coalition parties.

Many coalition promises, such as cutting taxes, abolishing pension reform, and introducing universal income are contradictory and difficult to implement, not least because of Italy's high debt levels and the need to rewrite euro zone budget rules.

"If you look at the coalition's promises, they are very difficult to deliver. But there are other things that they can do symbolically. Salvini has picked the most obvious one: If you pick a fight with NGOs they are very powerless to respond," Albertazzi said, adding that Italy can still argue its navy is saving migrants in the Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, by allying with Seehofer and anti-immigrant voices, Salvini can claim, "Now that I'm starting to shout a bit they are all agreeing we can control our borders," Albertazzi said.

Another reality

However, the reality is quite different. The EU, backed by core states France and Germany, has supported Italian-led measures that have seen migrant arrivals in Italy drop substantially by taking action in the central Mediterranean and in Africa.  

As Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU commissioner for migration said, action against migration is much more effective if it starts "on the other side of the Mediterranean."

Infografik Comparison of migrant landings in Italy EN

Read more: Migration summit offers prospect of aid and legal routes 

The EU has strengthened its external border and cooperated with migrant countries of origin and transit on a range of measures to fight human trafficking. EU member states have even deployed military and intelligence assets in Libya and the Sahel.

In Libya, for example, EU-backed programs have seen 25,000 migrants return to their country of origin. And EU cooperation with the Libyan coast guard has led to 16,000 migrants being rescued. Human rights groups have been highly critical of these policies, due to the dire conditions of Libyan reception centers and reports of torture and slavery.

Read more: Amnesty International claims EU 'complicit' in Libya migrant abuses

While Salvini and Conte may talk tough on migration, Italy is profiting from the policies of the previous Democratic Party (PD) government, which harassed NGO rescue ships, used the Italian military to counter migration and cooperated with Libyan factions against migrant smugglers. 

"Salvini may be a nationalist and fundamentally hostile to foreigners, but structurally he is simply extending what his predecessor Marco Minniti initiated in late 2016," said Alexander Clarkson, lecturer for German and European Studies at King's College London. "The difference with PD is in tactics. Where PD tried to get support from France, Germany and Spain behind the scenes, Conte and Salvini are openly challenging them to get assistance and concessions."

Even though Salvini and Conte may posture, just like the PD they "have focused on working with states that can deliver for Italy," such as Germany, France and Spain.

"This is a European shift, not just an Italian one. The populists are just being more direct about what is an emerging EU consensus," he said.

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