Europe's migration crisis

Enrico Letta, Italy’s former prime minister, vividly remembers the last time a summit of EU leaders was held against the backdrop of a raging migration crisis in the Mediterranean Sea — as it will be on Thursday.

It was October 2013, and 366 refugees had just died in a shipwreck as they reached the shores of Lampedusa, the most southern Italian island.

“I hope there won’t be just talk this time, because after Lampedusa it was all talk,” Mr Letta says in an interview with the Financial Times from his office in central Rome.

“We were able to get EU leaders to move from two words to four paragraphs on migrants in the communiqué, but in the end the burden remained entirely on Italy’s shoulders,” adds Mr Letta, who was in power at the time.

He responded to the disaster by approving the launch of Mare Nostrum — an expansive search and rescue mission run by the Italian Navy that patrolled the Mediterranean Sea up to the edge of Libyan territorial waters. He would like to see that effort — which was wound down at the end of last year and remains one of the defining legacies of his short tenure in office — restored in response to the latest disaster, with a much bigger logistical and financial contribution from other European countries.

Such a U-turn seems unlikely, but Mr Letta says that even some of the less ambitious proposals coming out of the EU in recent days are encouraging. “Things have moved in the right direction. [EU Council president] Donald Tusk seems very determined and it gives me the idea that they will try to do something significant,” he adds.

On specific plans — such as the idea floated this week to launch military strikes on empty migrant boats before they leave the Libyan coasts to stymie the human traffickers — Mr Letta is more cautious. “I hope it’s realistic and feasible, because there’s a need for it. But for now it feels like something out of an American movie,” he says.

Mr Letta, 48, was Italian prime minister for just 10 months, from April 2013 to February 2014, when he was ousted after losing an internal battle within his centre-left Democratic party. Some say Matteo Renzi, the 40-year-old former mayor of Florence and current premier, stabbed him in the back in what amounted to nothing short of an old-fashioned coup, but Mr Letta says he is not bitter. “It’s democracy, and I’ve always been in politics — for better or for worse. So let’s look forward, I’m looking forward,” he says.

Indeed, Mr Letta has just announced his resignation from the Italian parliament to become dean of the International Affairs school at the elite Sciences Po university in Paris, and released a book in Italy called Going together, Going Far on his time in office.

Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta poses at Palazzo Chigi during a meeting with the Royals of the Netherlands on January 23, 2014 in Rome, Italy. The Royals of the Netherlands are in Rome for a one day visit. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
Enrico Letta:

But even though Mr Letta is reluctant to criticise Mr Renzi directly, he delivers plenty of subtle jabs at his younger, energetic successor. On economic reforms, Mr Letta suggests Mr Renzi is not moving quite as fast as he could, especially given the “tailwinds” coming from lower oil prices, lower interest rates and a lower euro that he never benefited from. “The government has to insert the turbo, the winds are in our favour and now we have to run,” he says.

In addition, Mr Letta questions Mr Renzi’s decision to drop the review of public spending cuts launched by Carlo Cottarelli, a former IMF official and current executive board member. Meanwhile, Mr Renzi’s attempts to ram through political reforms — such as overhauling the constitution and the electoral law — despite the objections of many opposition parties as well as the leftwing of his own — are misplaced, he says. “I see a very tense situation,” Mr Letta notes. “And if there isn’t a wide consensus on such matters the results can be bad for everyone. Such an impetuous style can create ruptures.”

Ultimately, Mr Letta says Italy’s sluggish economy will only thrive if its companies embrace globalisation, even if it means losing some control — as in the case of the merger between Alitalia, the country’s flagship airline, and Etihad of the United Arab Emirates, that he helped engineer. And he adds that it is critical for Italy to support trade deals such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreement being hatched with the US — and hopes the pact does not take too long to be reached.

But his main thoughts these days are for the crisis in the Mediterranean, in the hope that finally a tipping point has been reached that will trigger more effective EU action.

“The issue of refugees is testing Europe’s soul,” he says.

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