2018 Elections in Italy: Stopping the Migrant Surge and Getting EU Aid

The Gentiloni cabinet is facing a real predicament. Ahead of the 2018 elections it finds itself under pressure from both center-right and populist forces that are displeased with the inability of the authorities to stop the migrant surge and secure substantial aid from the European Union.

The problem goes beyond Italy’s compliance with EU norms – the majority of people landing on its shores are not refugees but migrants from African countries, which cannot claim international protection. EU legislation allows EU members to expel them but Italy alone cannot register, process and send home such an enormous flow of people. It would be wrong to say that the EU is not helping Italy cope with this situation. After the Balkan route for transporting migrants was blocked the commission suggested a number of measures to shut off the Central Mediterranean route, including the training of Libya’s naval forces and coastal guards. This turn in EU policy occurred after the EU established relations with the Libyan Government of National Accord and deemed it possible to ask it for help in countering human traffickers because 90 percent of them start transporting passengers to Italy from Libyan shores.

A year after its start, the EU’s naval operation Sophia has expanded to cover two auxiliary tasks – delivery of hardware to Libya’s coastal guards and exchange of information on the routes of people smugglers. These measures were supposed to enhance the capability of the Libyan naval forces to destroy criminal networks, save lives and promote security in coastal waters.

The commission earmarked a million euros for the training of the coastal guards and Libya will receive another 2.2 million euros from the Italian Government. However, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini warned that there would be a risk of these funds disappearing before they reach their destination. The threat of embezzlement is one of the reasons behind the lack of reliable Libyan partners for countering illegal migration, although the Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj Government appealed to the EU for help. The EU leaders understood the need for contacts with the local authorities that have influence with the coastal population but it was even more difficult to achieve results in talks with them. Nonetheless, the EU is going to strengthen Libya’s southern borders by deploying missions.

Head of Frontex Fabrice Leggeri from France is working continuously with the Italian authorities to expand the patrol area on the migrant route from Libya and help expel migrants who have not received refugee status.

Brussels welcomed the signing of the agreement on regulating migration signed between Italy and the Sarraj Government on February 2, 2017. It should be recalled that at one time the EU also supported the agreement between Silvio Berlusconi and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi whereby in exchange for 50 million euros from the EU the Libyan authorities pledged to curb migrants and accept them back from Europe. This agreement was observed up to the overthrow of the Libyan regime. Now the EU leaders are ready to provide 200 million euros to help the Libyan coastal guards and curtail migration in neighboring countries. The commission plans to allot an additional 35 million euros to Italy under the circumstances.

Nevertheless, Italy has cause to resent the EU’s policy because its aid is obviously insufficient. For several years Italian leaders have been saying that the burden of the migration crisis should be shared by all EU members. However, EU countries are slow in carrying out the Council’s decision on resettling claimants of refugee status from Italian registration centers. For the time being, only about 7,000 people out of the planned 40,000 have been moved. Moreover, Italy cannot even prepare them for resettlement in time for lack of personnel.

Moreover, the reform of the Dublin Regulation was frozen in June. It provided for redistributing asylum seekers between all EU members in the event of excessive migration pressure on the country that happens to be the first stop in their journey. So far, the members of the Visegrad Group are successfully blocking this reform. Quite recently, the participants in the Council meeting of justice and interior  ministers in Tallinn did not show any enthusiasm in response to Italy’s desperate plea to open alternative ports for vessels that save migrants at sea.

At the same time, a massive outcry was caused by Italy’s decision to shut its ports to the ships of NGOs because some of them were suspected of contacts with human traffickers that were smuggling people from Libyan shores to Italy. Without EU support, the Italian authorities had to limit themselves to the elaboration of the Code of Conduct for NGOs, which will only slightly restrict their ability to transport migrants from the Libyan shores.

No government in Italy will be able to cope with the migrant surge in the near future, even if the current cabinet collapses under the pressure from the migrant problem. It is practically impossible to stop the flow of migrants to Europe from devastated Libya.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.