Posted on June 27, 2018

Italy’s Salvini Puts Roadblocks in Migrants’ Way While Reaching Out to Fellow European Populists

Giovanni Legorano, Wall Street Journal, June 27, 2018

Matteo Salvini, having established himself as Italy’s leading populist firebrand, is now making political waves in Europe.

The leader of the anti-immigration League party and interior minister is blocking migrant-laden boats from landing in Italy, challenging European Union rules on asylum, and adding to the pressure on Germany’s beleaguered chancellor, Angela Merkel.

Mr. Salvini, 45 years old, is emerging as a key player in a network of European nationalist politicians who want a tougher immigration crackdown. His growing clout in Rome, and Italy’s role as a gateway to Europe for migration from Africa, are making him a dangerous adversary for Ms. Merkel as she struggles to work out a common EU approach on migration.

Immigration policy is the central battleground in Europe’s deepening political divide. {snip} Antiestablishment political insurgents, particularly on the far-right, are denouncing EU efforts as a failure and seeking to sweep away longtime incumbents such as Ms. Merkel.


“Italy has stopped bowing its head and obeying,” Mr. Salvini said this month after blocking a ship bearing asylum seekers from landing. He has long accused Italy’s centrist politicians of doing what Germany and EU authorities wanted, including by continuing to take in asylum seekers from Africa, who are often brought across the Mediterranean on rescue ships after taking to sea in rickety boats.


Since 2011, more than 750,000 refugees and other migrants have reached Italy after being rescued in the Mediterranean. EU law holds that asylum-seekers are entitled to apply for international protection once they reach the mainland.

{snip} Only about 16,500 people have landed in Italy this year. However, the potency of the migration debate continues to grow in Italian politics.


Mr. Salvini’s provocative style carries strong echoes of U.S. President Donald Trump, from his prolific social-media posts to his “Italians First” campaign slogan.

His first major foray into European politics came last week, when he said Italy wouldn’t agree take back migrants from Germany to help relieve pressure on Ms. Merkel. “The Italian government is willing to help only Italians,” he said.


Mr. Salvini, however, is demanding that the rest of Europe take more migrants off Italy’s hands — rather than sending some back. “Instead of being willing to take, we are willing to give,” he said.

“The destiny of Merkel hangs partly on how much Italy is willing to concede,” said Federico Santi, an analyst at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group. {snip}

The deepening dispute over how to distribute migrants within the EU is leading European governments to focus on blocking off migration routes within Africa — one thing on which Mr. Salvini and Ms. Merkel agree.


“The priority for Italy is to protect [Europe’s] external borders. We must solve the problem at its roots,” he said.