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This is an audio transcript of the Rachman Review podcast episode: ‘90,000 migrants arrive in Italian ports

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Ben Hall
Hello and welcome to the Rachman Review. I’m Ben Hall, Europe editor at the Financial Times, standing in for Gideon Rachman. This week’s edition is about a new migrant crisis in Europe as Italy grapples with a surge in arrivals from North Africa. My guest is Nicoletta Pirozzi, the head of the EU programme at Italy’s Institute for International Affairs in Rome. Italy has become one of the main entry points to the EU for irregular migrants. But its new nationalist prime minister Giorgia Meloni has taken a hard line and is demanding Europe do more to help. Why has Meloni taken such a confrontational approach?

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Ben Hall
Some 90,000 people have arrived in Italian ports so far this year after a perilous journey across the southern Mediterranean, often in small, overcrowded boats. Many have been rescued at sea by ships operated by NGOs seeking to save lives. As the nearest port, Italy is obliged under humanitarian law to allow migrants to land. Meloni promised to work constructively with the EU when she took over the job last month, but she immediately waded into a diplomatic row with France after refusing to take in a shipload of migrants rescued by a French NGO.

Audio clip
The European Commission calls in a statement for the immediate disembarkation at the nearest safe place of all migrants on board the Ocean Viking, a migrant rescue ship. Italian authorities have not allowed it to disembark fully. A statement on the commission’s website added, “The situation must be urgently addressed to avoid a humanitarian tragedy.” The Ocean Viking has now left Italian waters and is heading to Marseilles in France.

Ben Hall
Paris slammed Italy for failing to abide by its humanitarian obligations to take people rescued at sea. Here’s French Europe minister Laurence Boone accusing Italy of a breach of trust.

Laurence Boone
(Speaking in French)

Ben Hall
But Rome is fed up and wants other EU member states to share the burden. Here’s Giorgia Meloni speaking recently about her government’s disagreement with France.

Giorgia Meloni, via interpreter
I’ve been very much struck by the French government’s aggressive reaction, which from my point of view is incomprehensible and unjustified. Almost 90,000 people have entered Italy since the start of the year. On the same day of our discussions about the Ocean Viking, 600 people arrived in small boats.

Ben Hall
I began by asking Nicoletta why Meloni risked picking a fight with Paris over the Ocean Viking.

Nicoletta Pirozzi
Well, I think the situation is the result of the choice by the Meloni’s government to keep a tough stance on identity issues that are appealing to the domestic electorate. So migration is for sure one of those. But also rights, for example. And this is due to the limited margin of manoeuvre that she has on other issues, for example, of foreign policy, economic policy due to external constraints coming from Europe and external allies. However, honestly, I don’t think they predicted such an escalation with France, which reacted also in an unusual, surprising, harsh way. And I think this is also due to internal circumstances in France, given that Macron is now a minority government, is facing a general strike. He has political pressure on migration by Les Républicain and Le Pen. Finally, I think we have to consider a few elements: Meloni’s lack of extensive experience on European politics and diplomacy. This is a first for her and also the role that Matteo Salvini is trying to play in the government coalition because he’s being very vocal on these traditional political battles and migration is certainly one of those. Plus, I would add the distance between Meloni and Macron also in terms of political and ideological stance.

Ben Hall
You clearly put the emphasis on the internal domestic calculations of this new government. But is there also a problem of irregular migration coming over from the southern Mediterranean? Is it actually getting worse?

Nicoletta Pirozzi
Well, actually, the numbers of irregular arrivals have been rising steadily since 2020 after a decrease we had between 2017 and 2019. So for this year, for example, the projections are around 100,000, which will not exceed the threshold since 2017. So we are not in the situation of the migration crisis in 2015, 2016, but still the numbers are growing. Libya is not the only point of embarkation, I have to say, because, for example, in the first six months of 2022, 55 per cent embarked in Libya, but 21 per cent came from Tunisia and another 21 per cent even from Turkey. So to answer your question, the numbers are growing, but we have not reached the level of the migration crisis a few years ago.

Ben Hall
As you pointed out, the numbers did dip after the 2016 migrant crisis and no doubt Matteo Salvini might claim some credit for that performance during his time as interior minister, where he also took an incredibly tough stance on that. Is Meloni trying to sort of out-Salvini Mr Salvini?

Nicoletta Pirozzi
To a certain extent, yes. We can see some continuity if we compare what the government is doing and what Matteo Salvini was doing back then. And, for example, the current minister of interior, Piantedosi, has also pointed to the spectacularisation of the clash with the NGOs and also this confrontation with France. Overall, the Italian demands to Europe on migration have never substantially changed, basically. Also with the different governments since the Gentiloni’s government. Italy has always asked for a reduction of irregular flows and also greater solidarity within the European Union in terms of redistribution of asylum seekers and irregular migrants arriving to Italy and also the revision of the Dublin regulation. But yes, I can see there is this tension within the majority with Meloni facing this mounting presence by Matteo Salvini on this specific topic.

Ben Hall
The question of burden sharing, if you like, across the EU of these migrant flows is deeply divisive. Does that explain why the EU cannot come up with a common system for handling these boatloads and handling the processing of asylum seekers?

Nicoletta Pirozzi
Well, yes. For years there has been no agreement whatsoever because each country has its own, more or less, legitimate claims over migration. Now we have the additional burden coming from the east with the Russian aggression of Ukraine and the many refugees flowing to Italy from Ukraine. The Commission has tried in the past to find a compromise. In 2020, the Commission proposed a pact that would take into account all the dimensions of migration policies and try to find an inclusive agreement, this new pact on migration and asylum. But for the moment, there is no agreement, although the Council and the parliament have pledged to agree on something by 2024. And I have to say that in the past Salvini himself insisted, when he was minister of interior, for example, to abolish the naval component of the European Union maritime mission, Sophia, which was helping in the management of migration because he claimed that the presence of rescue ships attracted migrant departures, the so-called pull factor. And now this is the same accusation directed also at NGOs which operate in this vacuum, basically as the left by the European Union.

Ben Hall
France during its presidency of the EU in the first half of this year did negotiate a sort of voluntary burden-sharing system. Has it not worked, or is it just too early in its life to bring results for Italy?

Nicoletta Pirozzi
Yeah, this is the agreement that France suspended recently. It was more a declaration of solidarity involving 18 EU countries plus some others, such as Switzerland, for example, and Norway. It is not a structural solidarity mechanism in the European Union as Italy would like, but it is more a temporary mechanism that will last one year and which applies mainly to migrants rescued at sea. So not to all the applicants. Plus, participation, as you said, is voluntary. Basically, France withdrew when it wanted to, and this is the main problem of this kind of agreement. We have a non-binding and non-structural agreement for all the reasons that we were mentioning before. In 2019, there was another agreement, the Malta agreement, signed by the Conte government, which was very similar but limited to Italy, France, Germany and Malta. So there have been several attempts, but as long as these agreements are not binding, it will be very difficult to have such a European solidarity on such a sensitive issue.

Ben Hall
From the French point of view, it was Italy that reneged on its commitments because Italy has a legal obligation, as Paris sees it, to . . . well, it has a legal obligation to give a port to these boatloads, since it is the nearest safe harbour, and that French ministers talked about it as a breach of trust with Italy. They have a point, don’t they? That, if Italy is not prepared to stick by its international obligations, then other countries might not want to help it.

Nicoletta Pirozzi
Yes, there is a crisis of trust that this position taken by the Italian government has initiated basically with this move. It is true that Italy is trying to make a point basically, on the fact that this Dublin regulation that we have. The fact that it is the country of first arrival that has to take in charge all the procedures related to asylum demands is not sustainable in the long term, and there has to be some European solidarity on this, specifically. On the other side, some member states are saying that Italy is not doing enough in terms of secondary movements. So for example, it is true that people arriving in Italy then move to other countries, mainly Germany for example, and even France. And this is also the reason why France has reinforced the controls of the Ventimiglia border. So it is a very tricky situation, which is not good for Italy and France, and not good for Europe overall.

Ben Hall
Migrant flows from Africa are set to be quite a long-term phenomenon, given all the push factors like population growth and climate change there. Is that why Italy needs a long-term solution to irregular migration?

Nicoletta Pirozzi
Yes, this is what Italy wants. However, if we look at how the migration issue is framed at the political level, we realise that it is often presented not as a structural phenomenon, but more as a risk or a threat, and the government, very often, behaves accordingly. So, basically they don’t want to give the impression they’re conceding anything to other European partners and they want to make a point that Italy needs help by the European Union.

Ben Hall
And Nicoletta, what about the role of rescue ships operated by non-governmental organisations? Italy and some other governments claim they are actually facilitating irregular migration across the sea. Do they have a point?

Nicoletta Pirozzi
Yes, this is the current position of the government. Minister Piantedosi has proposed a decree to limit the possibility of NGOs to operate in the territorial borders, because there is this assumption that they still act as a pull factor for migration. And the fact that they are present in the Mediterranean Sea is helping people to leave from the southern Mediterranean coast to the Italian coasts.

Ben Hall
Is it actually true that they are acting as a sort of a pull factor? They are, of course, also saving people from drowning.

Nicoletta Pirozzi
Exactly. I mean, there is an humanitarian necessity of saving lives in the Mediterranean. The European Union had a maritime mission in the past that was helping in this task and was the result of solidarity among member states. But this is not the case anymore. So basically, NGOs are replacing what the governments and the European Union itself should do at sea.

Ben Hall
Is the EU facing another migrant crisis? It’s not just an uptick in arrivals across the sea. We are also seeing quite a large increase in the number of people coming through the western Balkans. And of course, millions of Ukrainian refugees have fled Russia’s aggression there this year. And we may see more coming from Ukraine as winter sets in. Is Europe in a situation in which it can handle this without it generating a lot of political divisions?

Nicoletta Pirozzi
The EU is indeed facing an unprecedented crisis in numbers, and this is mainly due to the Ukrainian people coming from the eastern flank. However, if you look at the reactions among the governments in the European Union, this has not raised any controversy or confrontation between member states. Nothing comparable to what happened, for example, for non-European migrants. So for example, the temporary protection scheme for Ukrainian refugees was approved in record time, also because it was framed as another component of the European support for Ukraine. But it is clear that the sensitivity of the migration flows from Ukraine is different compared to other migrants. I don’t know the situation in the Balkans very well, but I know that the high numbers are also due to the fact that Frontex records attempted irregular entries, so not individual people, so for example, the same person can be counted several times. So in essence, I think the situation is complex and the numbers are again growing. But for me, this is primarily a political issue and we are still in the condition to face it without any major problems if the governments in the EU will find a common agreement.

Ben Hall
As you said, this is a sort of defining issue for Giorgia Meloni. But will it become the defining issue as far as her European partners are concerned? I mean, can she sort of compartmentalise this issue and still act as a sort of constructive, pragmatic player in other fields in the EU? Or is this gonna be a source of distrust?

Nicoletta Pirozzi
This is what Giorgia Meloni is trying to do, I think, to compartmentalise, trying to show its firm stance on some issues, including migration. But at the same time adopting very constructive approach on other issues, for example, on economy, on budget, as we clearly have seen also during our first visit to Brussels, to the EU leaders. However, this is not how the European Union works, really. Because for example, this confrontation on migration can have also a negative impact on other sectors on which Italy is trying to advance its requests for reform in the European Union. For example, the economic governance and the modification of financial rules.

Ben Hall
Do you think that shows a certain sort of political naivete on the part of Giorgia Meloni, who’s obviously only been in power for a little over a month and had very little experience of government or diplomacy beforehand?

Nicoletta Pirozzi
To a certain extent, yes. I don’t think she realises fully the possible consequences of such a move. I think it was a false step at the beginning of our government. Not the best way to begin our mandate in Europe, but something that can be repaired through the mobilisation of the diplomatic channels. We have seen the president of the republic jumping in, Mattarella and calling President Macron. We have seen the Foreign Minister Tajani playing the mediation role at the latest meeting of the council of the European Union. Of course, this has to be paired with the better-prepared political initiatives in the next future. So, she has to learn to look not only at the domestic here, as it has done so far, but also at the broader picture of their political choices and those of her allies.

Ben Hall
And for many outside of Italy, they see Meloni as the sort of first post-fascist premier of Italy. This is her showing her true colours, isn’t it?

Nicoletta Pirozzi
Well, as I say, these identity issues are the most appealing for the electorate that Meloni’s talking to: migration, civil rights. And these are also the first the sectors in which the government has acted. So in order to regain trust and credibility, also with her European allies, I think she will have to prove to be much more pragmatic and much more constructive in the many sectors in which Italy will have to deal with European institutions.

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Ben Hall
That was Nicoletta Pirozzi ending this edition of the Rachman Review. Thanks for joining me. Gideon will be back next week, so please listen again then.

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