When It Comes to EU Migration Policies, Italy Won’t Go Down Without a Fight

8 MINS READJul 9, 2019 | 09:30 GMT
Migrants sit aboard a Maltese patrol boat after being rescued off the Libyan coast by a German-flagged ship on July 7, 2019.

Migrants rescued by a German-flagged ship sit aboard a Maltese patrol boat on July 7, 2019, en route to Malta after being denied permission to dock in Italy.

  • The number of migrants reaching the European Union by sea or land has decreased significantly since the peak of the immigration crisis of 2015 — a trend that is likely to continue in 2019.
  • But immigration nonetheless remains at the center of Italian politics, with the country's government pushing for a more equal distribution of migrants across all EU member states.
  • However, such a comprehensive EU reform is unlikely, which will prompt Italy to take matters into its own hands by toughening its immigration rules in the coming months.
  • The Italian government will also be more willing to make unilateral moves to prevent migrants from entering or staying in the country, resulting in renewed disputes with Brussels and other European countries.

Far fewer asylum seekers are now knocking on Europe's door compared with the droves that flooded its borders just a few years ago. But thanks to Italy, the European Union is still grappling with immigration concerns. The Italian government recently threatened to stop registering migrants who arrive in its territory so that they can move to other parts of the Continent — thereby violating the European Union’s Dublin Regulation, which establishes that migrants have to apply for asylum in the country where they first set foot.

But despite facing possible sanctions for doing so, Italy's government is showing no signs of backing down, especially since its tough anti-immigration stance has continued to serve to its right-wing party's benefit at the polls. Thus, immigration will remain a central issue in Rome’s political agenda in the months ahead — providing fodder for even more diplomatic disputes between Italy and Brussels, as well as other EU member states, in the process.

The Big Picture

Italy’s coalition government is ruled by populist and right-wing parties that both oppose many aspects of EU integration. Rome’s main dispute with Brussels is rooted in fiscal issues and lowering Italy’s deficit. However, the bloc's migration rules are becoming an increasingly prominent friction point between the European Union and one of its largest economies.

The State of EU Migration

According to recent data released by the United Nations, around 141,000 migrants reached the European Union by either sea or land in 2018 — a far cry from the roughly 1 million people who arrived during the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015. The arrival of migrants has decreased every year since 2015 and is expected to drop again this year as well. These overall drops in migration are the result of several factors, including tougher immigration laws in several EU member states and greater EU cooperation with migrants' countries of origin, as well as an agreement between Brussels and Turkey to prevent migrants from entering the bloc.

The data also shows that Syrian migrants, who were at the center of the 2015 crisis, now represent only 12 percent of all arrivals. International law makes a distinction between people who are escaping war or persecution at home and have the right to be granted asylum abroad and those who are seeking a better life abroad but do not qualify for asylum. Because of their country's ongoing civil war, Syrian nationals thus have a much higher chance of being granted asylum than migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, who are more likely to be deemed as migrants seeking economic opportunity. But despite this distinction, EU governments often fail to expel those migrants whose asylum applications have been rejected, leaving them in a legal gray area.

A bar chart showing Mediterranean migration to Europe via sea and land.

The U.N. data also revealed that Greece is the top entry point for migrants, followed by Spain. Italy, meanwhile, is in a distant third position with less than 3,000 arrivals in the first half of 2019. Moreover, sea arrivals to Italy fell by a staggering 88 percent between January and May, compared with the number of arrivals recorded during the same period last year. According to Eurostat data, asylum applications in Italy fell by 61 percent between 2017 and 2018 as well, with Rome receiving only 8 percent of the European Union's total asylum requests last year (Germany, by contrast, represented 28 percent of the bloc's total asylum requests).

A map showing the number of migrants arriving in Europe via the Mediterranean sea so far in 2019.

The Boomerang Effect of the Dublin Regulation

However, while the overall number of migrants arriving directly to Italy by sea or land may be decreasing, recent data also show that the number of those who are being sent back to Italy from other EU member states is on the rise. In 2018, some 6,500 people were forced to return from fellow EU countries because Italy was where they were initially registered. This is a considerable increase from the 2,500 people who “ricocheted” back to Rome in 2014 under the Dublin Regulation.

As a result, Rome has argued that the Dublin system puts an unfair burden on the countries located on the European Union's outer edge — particularly those in the Mediterranean, who often serve as the main buffer to North African and Middle Eastern migrant flows. The Italian government has pushed for other EU countries to accept more migrants, believing that the rest of the bloc should show more solidarity.

Italy has also accused international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating in the Mediterranean of exacerbating its burden by simply dropping off the migrants they find at sea on Italy's doorstep. As a result, Rome has toughened its stance against these organizations in recent months by denying many of them access to Italian ports.

In early July, Rome had a diplomatic spat with Germany and the Netherlands after police temporarily arrested the captain of a ship carrying migrants that docked in the Italian island of Lampedusa without permission. The ship, which flew a Dutch flag, was operated by a German NGO and its captain was a German national. Rome accused Berlin and the Hague of lack of solidarity and demanded that the countries where these humanitarian NGOs are based should take responsibility for the organizations' actions. After a few days of tense back-and-forth, Germany and other EU countries caved to Italy's demands and agreed to take some of the migrants on the ship.

Rome has also accused France of sending back thousands of people who try to cross the French border near the Italian town of Ventimiglia. This adds to tensions between the two EU neighbors over the situation in Libya — a key departing point for migrants to Europe — as Rome and Paris support different factions fighting for control of the troubled North African country.

The Political Fodder Fueling Italy's Fire

Rome’s tougher position on migration is promoted by the right-wing League party, which shares power over the country's coalition government with the populist Five Star Movement. The overall drop in migrants arriving in Italy over the past year suggests that the League's platform is helping deter migrant flows to the country. But the fact that its anti-immigration rhetoric and criticism of the European Union's lack of solidarity is more inflamed than ever despite the improving situation suggests that the party's position is, in part, also fueled by a need to garner political support.

Immigration will remain at the core of Italy's political agenda — providing fodder for even more disputes with Brussels, as well as other EU member states, in the process.

And indeed, this strategy seems to be working, because the party's popularity has increased significantly over the past year. In May, the League received 34 percent of the vote in the elections for the European Parliament — a considerable jump from the 17 percent it received in Italy's last general election in March 2018. Given this mandate, the League will thus ensure immigration remains at the center of the coalition government's agenda in the coming months and will continue to demand a redesign of the European Union's migration rules under the current Dublin system. 

Brussels’ Answer (or Lack Thereof) 

However, significant reform of EU migration rules is unlikely due to the lack of consensus in Brussels. In the past, the European Commission has proposed different mechanisms to distribute asylum seekers across the bloc. But several countries (particularly those in Central and Eastern Europe) refused to comply with Brussels’ orders, and thus these proposals were never able to garner much traction on the ground.

Rather than finding a new way to distribute migrants once they've already set foot in a member state, the European Union is thus more likely to continue looking for ways to prevent or deter migrants from ever entering the bloc in the first place. This means that the EU is more likely, for example, to grant more resources to protect its external sea and land borders or to provide financial assistance to the countries of origin and transit of migrants than it is to reform the Dublin system. 

In response, the Italian government will continue its policy of preventing (or at least delaying) ships carrying migrants from reaching Italian shores, in the hopes of pressuring other EU countries to accept some of the ships — spurring new spats with the Northern European countries where most of the NGOs operating the ships hail from. In an effort to circumvent the Dublin Regulation altogether, there's a chance Italy could also intentionally become more lax in registering migrants — a strategy that other Italian governments have done in the past. Italy’s neighbors are likely to protest these measures, which could result in some temporary border closures. 

However, Brussels will be reluctant to open a new battlefront with Rome for fear of detracting from what it sees as its more imminent discussions with the country, such as reducing Italy's deficit — especially since the actual number of migrant arrivals is not nearly as high as it once was. Thus, at the end of the day, there's a greater chance that the European Union will protest, but ultimately tolerate, the Italian government's bending of the Dublin rule.

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