Since 2015, immigration has become a major flashpoint in Europe. It motivated Brexit. It fuels populism and xenophobia across the bloc. Can it now upend Italian politics?
Italy is under huge strain. The country has seen 85,000 new arrivals so far this year, a 10 percent increase over 2016, according to interior ministry data. But while Italy has the infrastructure to handle the pressure, its politics may not. With elections to be held by the spring of next year and still no end in sight to the migration crisis, the situation has become a real emergency for its politicians.
The European Union has already provided crucial economic and logistical support, but Rome’s demands for more "solidarity” are far from unreasonable. The number of migrants entering Europe has increased exponentially, and the flow shows no sign of abating. Circumstances have changed and the EU has to adapt its rules accordingly. Italy can handle the immediate emergency, but the EU has to do more to tackle the causes of the crisis.
The challenge has its roots in demographic pressure northward from Africa and, to a lesser extent, from the Middle East and Central Asia. Close to 2 million refugees and economic migrants made their way to Europe in 2015 and 2016. Even if the crises and wars that displaced them can be brought under control, experts estimate tens of millions more will make their way to Europe over the next two decades for a variety of reasons — demography, poverty, climate change, political and ethnic strife.
The problem is a European one, but it is above all an Italian one; roughly 75 percent of the migrants arriving in Europe land in Italy.
Rome has largely been left to handle the crisis on its own. Even as the EU offers financial support, France, Switzerland and Austria are busy trying to seal their borders. Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz even went so far as to ask his Italian counterpart to leave arriving migrants on the small island of Lampedusa, where many migrants land.
There may not be another "surge” of migrants north this summer, but many of those who have landed in Italy’s reception centers will attempt to move on, looking for better places to work or joining friends and family. An illegal passage northward across Italy costs less than €500. And while national borders will be a speedbump, they ultimately will not block a rising tide of people who are eager for a better future, and who have already withstood unimaginable hardship to arrive in Italy.
One thing should be clear to all Europeans: Immigration is here to stay. And, as recent arrivals to Italy have shown, we will mostly see an increase in economic migrants who are not entitled to asylum.
So far the EU has dealt with the migration crisis by applying band-aids to problems pertaining to arrivals: the refugee deal with Turkey that closed the Balkan route; border security operations; the creation of hotspots in Italy and Greece; a relocation program that benefited fewer than 8,000 people at great political cost.
What Brussels has not done is deal with the problem where it lies: at points of transit in Libya and at its source, in the African countries people are leaving.
The EU needs to take three main steps. First, claim ownership of a Libya reconciliation and stabilization process. Second, launch a systematic program of forced repatriation for economic migrants. And third, negotiate with African countries, offering substantial aid and job creation opportunities in exchange for serious commitments to rein in illegal migration.
Needless to say, these efforts would also help fight human trafficking and reduce the number of people who lose their lives in the Sahara and the Mediterranean.
None of these measures will spare Italy its summer of domestic discontent. But it would show Italian — and European — voters that European solidarity does exist.
There is no European cavalry coming to the rescue. For now, Italy has to bite the bullet on immigration. But the EU must do its part to offer Rome the prospect of relief down the road, and make sure it doesn’t suffer alone on the front lines.