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Libya turmoils to fuel anti-migration propaganda in Italian electoral campaign

Anti-immigrants poster in Italy [personal archive]

The European agenda on migration could darken, as new instability erupted in Libya, one of the local political leaders warned. Eastern Libyan strongman General Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive on the UN-backed government in Tripoli, paving the way for a new struggle for power. The EU, and Italy with it, back the prime minister of Libya, Fayez al-Sarraj, recognized as the legitimate leader of the country.

The fragile balance in Libya is at stake because of the latest domestic developments. “The worsening of the situation in Libya could push 800,000 migrants and Libyans to invade Italy and Europe”, al-Sarraj cautioned.

A new migration crisis in the midst of the electoral campaign for the European elections is the last thing Europe could ask for. In recent years migration has influenced the political debate both at national and at EU level. Feeding the electoral campaign with fear risks to fuel an unprecedented surge of the far-right, extremist forces, within the European Parliament.

This is especially true for Italy, a country more and more far-right oriented. The leader of the League, Matteo Salvini, acceded to power thanks his narrative on migration and his allegations on the will of Europe to let Italy invaded by asylum seekers.

Boomerang effect?

Since the very beginning Salvini has been promising Italians that the national ports will remain closed, and no disembarkation will be authorized by the Italian authorities on the national coasts. The leader of the League has made his political fortune by claiming to become the defender of the country from immigrants. What about now? In case of an eventual exodus from Libya, could Salvini can keep going with his usual model?

In case of massive flows of migrants it would be very difficult, even impossible, to keep the ports closed. Despite all the possible tweets, Salvini will be obliged to take care about people. He could avoid rescuing one boat, two boats, but he can’t impose to the other EU member states how to respond to such crisis.

For Salvini, even a single boat in the Italian ports would be a disaster, politically speaking. This would mean for him to admit that his policy has not been sustainable. Or, again, it would mean that he couldn’t win the battle in Europe (where he never attended ministerial meetings in the Council, not even on migration issues). It would be an implicit admission of failure. Then his popularity could be affected.

Salvini’s new impulse

On the contrary, the deterioration of the situation could be seen as an urge for strong leadership. A strong ‘captain’, as Salvini is called in Italy according the nickname given to him by his supporters. In a middle of a new migrant crisis, having Salvini blocking access to Italian harbors could be the right way to oblige the European Union to review the Dublin regulation and providing once and for all different rules based on automatic and mandatory schemes of redistribution.

This is exactly what the Five Star Movement wants. Salvini’s partners in government have been pushing for a Dublin regulation reform in order to alleviate the burden from Italy of dealing with all the people entering national waters. Five Stars could play the role of the “good cop”, leaving the League acting as the “bad cop”. A sort of mediation to use in Europe to try to convince the other countries to listen to Italy.

Of course, in the case of a resolute line in the middle of a crisis, the two parties in power would be rewarded in terms of popular support. Since Italians don’t want migrants, leaving them blocked at sea will give the League and M5S new, additional strength to those who preach zero-migration. And Salvini doesn’t want immigrants. So, the crisis on the horizon can be another good opportunity for him to become more and more popular among Italians.

The pretext of security

Salvini is the minister for Home affairs. He is in charge of security, and that’s helpful. Immediately after al-Sarraj’s warning, the leader of the League mentioned the threat of possible terrorists ready to travel to Italy, repeating that Italian ports will remain closed.

Such a message is part of the logic of the electoral campaign, of course. But it also is a measurement of what Italians want and don’t want. This European election, for Italy, will be about migration. Maybe not completely, but the subject will play a very important role in orienting the voters’ intentions.

Foreign affairs agenda was a tragedy

In any case, what is happening in Libya shows how Italy wasn’t capable of preserving its own strategic interests. Which means, in other words, a complete failure in foreign affairs. The Italian government had to act in order to guarantee stability in Libya. Of course it wasn’t an easy task, given the fragile political situation on the ground.

The previous Italian government kept in touch with the Libyan authorities. A silent, but focused activity was carried on by the Gentiloni administration. And above all, any potential conflict with France – very active in the region – was carefully avoided. That was not the case for this Italian government.

No doubt that the League-M5S coalition performed badly in foreign affairs. Unfortunately Italians don’t seem to be aware of this failure.

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