Italy’s Immigration Balancing Act: Can the new administration reverse Salvini’s harsh stance on immi
August 8th, 2019, then current Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini of Italy effectively toppled his own government when he filed a ‘no confidence’ motion against Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. This motion ended the Lega Nord party’s coalition with the Five Star Movement, and Salvini hoped Italy would resort to a snap election where he could become Prime Minister. But, the Five Star Movement formed a new governing coalition with the center-left Democratic Party and Conte remained PM.
The new administration, composed of Prime Minister Conte and his ministers, is tasked with the delicate balancing act of aligning itself with the EU by softening the hardline anti-immigration policies introduced by Salvini while keeping Italian citizens satisfied, as those policies were what won Salvini widespread support. Given the difficult task at hand, the new government is likely to soften its anti-immigration rhetoric without changing the actual policies in place.
Hopes that the new coalition will try to revert to softer immigration policies than Salvini’s, are unlikely. Local policing efforts, backlash from Salvini, and existing public support for harsher immigration policies are just a few barriers the government will face. Salvini adopted a similar stance to American President Trump:“Italy first.” This rhetoric, combined with public opinion on immigration, may actually bolster support for Salvini.
The reason for believing Italy may move toward a more humane immigration policy is primarily due to the striking differences between Salvini and Luciana Lamorgese, his successor as Minister of the Interior. Unlike Salvini, Lamorgese is an independent official who has repeatedly stated that she wants Italy’s security laws to be more humane. She has a nuanced understanding of immigration policy, with over 30 years of experience in the Interior Ministry, and differs from Salvini in that she primarily works under the radar, without a social media presence, a space where Salvini and many other populists harness their base of support. Her appointment to the position of Deputy of the Interior seems like an attempt to restore the immigration regulations to a position of stability, law, and tolerance.
Conte has repeatedly voiced his desire to adopt a “responsible, accurate and structured” approach to immigration. He wants to crack down on illegal migration and human smuggling while integrating asylum-seekers, who maintain a right to stay in Italy. While this evident change in rhetoric is not the only way Italy can alleviate harmful immigration policies, it does exhibit a shifting priority toward embracing migrants.
Reforming immigration, while evidently a priority for Conte, is not a simple task. One barrier that the new government will face in immigration reform is backlash from Salvini and his supporters, who have successfully infused anti-immigrant sentiment within his base and much of the general population. It is likely that Salvini will turn to social media and criticize Prime Minister Conte and his coalition for their lack of respect for law and order in immigration policy. This would play directly into the base of supporters he built over the course of his time in power. Salvini clashed with the EU on a multitude of immigration issues, especially regarding boats transporting migrants. Because he is no longer a leader in the government, he will continue to frame Conte’s new coalition as one under Northern European influence in an attempt to fire up his base of populist supporters. In reality, some Northern European countries are willing to reform European asylum laws to try to relieve some pressure from Italy and ensure the new government is more EU centered than Salvini’s.
Salvini’s outward rants on social media should not be taken lightly by the EU and other supporters of humane migration policy, as the coalition must maintain the electorate’s support while balancing new migration policy. According to Giovanni Orsina, a political scientist of Rome's Luiss University, “Most Italians like the closing of the ports; so changing this policy in fact could be quite damaging to the reputation of this government.” This analysis indicates Lamorgese does not have much room to maneuver when it comes to vessels heading for Italian ports. This is especially dangerous for the new government to continue in the majority, because approximately 35-40 percent of Italians still support staunch nationalists like Salvini. The new coalition could fall quickly, and Salvini’s Lega party could return to power, a concerning possibility for Italians that support Conte’s humane immigration policy reform.
Even with Salvini’s administration out of government, refugees and immigrants in Italy are trapped in cycles of harassment. Migrants in Italy face police violence and xenophobia, mostly due to harmful anti-immigrant rhetoric circulating through the media, often endorsed by Salvini’s government. That hateful speech enforces stereotypes upon which local police officers directly act, contributing to the high unlikelihood that Italy’s new government is successful in changing its immigration policy. Not only is the fear instilled in migrant communities by local police officers unenforceable at a federal level, but it is rooted in racism, a sentiment which is near-impossible to combat through national policy efforts.
While Conte’s government has expressed efforts to reform immigration, the actions of local police officers inhibit the national government of Italy from moving closer to a more humane immigration system. In order to ensure “migrant rights are human rights” in Europe, the Italian government must acknowledge the effects that local police enforcement has on immigrant communities. Without a change at this level of government, national immigration reform cannot and will not occur.