Surge of mi­gra­tion trans­forms po­lit­i­cal sen­ti­ment across Italy, en­er­gizes party

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY ERIC J. LY­MAN

ROME | Five years ago, Italy’s sep­a­ratist North­ern League party fin­ished far be­hind in Italy’s gen­eral elec­tion, show­ing lit­tle na­tional ap­peal and sit­ting be­tween two par­ties with so lit­tle sup­port that they no longer ex­ist.

To­day, the stream­lined League is a part­ner in a two-party gov­ern­ment coali­tion and, ac­cord­ing to polls, may soon be the coun­try’s dom­i­nant po­lit­i­cal force.

The turn­around rests on a Trumpian ap­proach: an in­creas­ingly strong and vo­cal stand against mi­gra­tion that is prov­ing an un­ex­pect­edly po­tent gen­er­a­tor of votes.

“Mi­grants have be­come the cen­tral is­sue in Italy, and it’s clear Italy will be tight­en­ing the screws of mi­grant ar­rivals and on mi­grants al­ready” in Italy, said Franco Pavon­cello, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist and the pres­i­dent of Rome’s John Cabot Univer­sity.

Italy is on the front line of Europe’s mi­gra­tion prob­lem: More than 600,000 refugees have landed on Italy’s shores in the past four years to flee in­sta­bil­ity in the Mid­dle East and North Africa.

Anti-mi­grant sen­ti­ment in Italy of­ten has taken a vi­o­lent turn. In the lead-up to Italy’s March 4 vote, six African mi­grants were shot in one af­ter­noon by a for­mer lo­cal League can­di­date who sported a Nazi tat­too on his face.

Af­ter nearly three months of con­tentious ne­go­ti­a­tions, that elec­tion re­sulted in a gov­ern­ment in­stal­la­tion Fri­day.

As re­cently as Satur­day, a refugee from Mali was killed and two oth­ers in­jured in south­ern Italy, though there were no ob­vi­ous con­nec­tions to any po­lit­i­cal party. There have been mul­ti­ple re­ports of less­deadly vi­o­lence against mi­grants in the past few months.

“There is an in­creas­ing be­lief that Italy’s prob­lems, whether slow eco­nomic growth, jobs, crime, what­ever, come in part from the ar­rival of too many mi­grants,” said Gian Franco Gallo, an ABS Se­cu­ri­ties po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst. “The League didn’t cre­ate the an­timi­grant sen­ti­ment, but they iden­ti­fied it and made other par­ties fol­low suit.”

It rep­re­sents a rad­i­cal change for a coun­try that un­til re­cently was con­sid­ered among Europe’s most open. The polling com­pany Opin­ioni re­ports that Ital­ians in some sur­veys put mi­gra­tion as the is­sue they care about most — more than ed­u­ca­tion, the en­vi­ron­ment or the econ­omy.

Mat­teo Salvini, 45, a col­lege dropout, is re­spon­si­ble for the change in the party’s im­age and elec­toral for­tunes. Mr. Salvini took con­trol of the party in the wake of the 2013 vote, dropped “North­ern” from its name to broaden its ap­peal, and de-em­pha­sized its cen­tral plank call­ing for more re­gional au­ton­omy, which was seen as the north’s way of sep­a­rat­ing from the poorer south.

Mr. Salvini has not minced words when ad­dress­ing the im­mi­gra­tion is­sue. In speeches, he re­peat­edly tells his au­di­ence that “unchecked im­mi­gra­tion brings chaos, anger, drug deal­ing, theft, rape and vi­o­lence.”

Mr. Salvini and his party even man­aged to pick what may be a po­lit­i­cally ad­van­ta­geous fight with Hun­gar­ian-Amer­i­can Ge­orge Soros. The bil­lion­aire phi­lan­thropist and sup­porter of lib­eral im­mi­gra­tion laws aired sus­pi­cions that the League may have re­ceived se­cret fund­ing from Moscow, given Mr. Salvini’s past praise of Russian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin and sup­port for bet­ter re­la­tions with Moscow.

While con­firm­ing Italy’s NATO com­mit­ments, the new gov­ern­ment’s pol­icy agenda calls for a lift­ing of EU sanc­tions against Rus­sia as well as the open­ing of di­a­logue and part­ner­ships, given Moscow’s eco­nomic, com­mer­cial and strate­gic im­por­tance.

The League “never re­ceived a lira, euro or ru­ble from Rus­sia,” the party said in a state­ment.

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