Italy migration diplomacy: hanging out with the wrong crowd?

Italy has seen a sharp increase in refugee and migrant sea arrivals this year, with over 92,000 people arriving to its shores as of November 2022, compared to 56,500 sea arrivals in the same period last year. According to the Italian Ministry of Interior, 14% of them were picked up by charity vessels. When the new far-right Italian government under Prime Minister Georgia Meloni took office end of September 2022 it was clear that it would take a hard stance on irregular migration and rescue vessels in particular.

While the challenges Italy faces in unequal sharing of refugee and migrant arrivals within the EU are very real, and the request for EU support only fair, the current approach of the Italian government seems to actually undermine the possibility of a constructive dialogue at the EU level, alienating potential allies, while sympathizing with those governments least likely to support a practical solution to responsibility sharing and solidarity.

Blockade: a very dangerous déjà vu

In early November, the government blocked the disembarkation of three rescue vessels (operated by MSF, SOS Méditerranée and SOS Humanity), carrying more than 1,000 people, with vessels having to stay in rough seas with nowhere to go. One week later, after long negotiations, children and other vulnerable individuals were allowed to disembark, while one of the vessels was offered to dock in France. Finally, almost three weeks after having sent their first request to local authorities, the two others were allowed to fully disembark on Italian shores.

This is not the first time that people rescued at sea have to bear the brunt of a broken EU reception system, which sees Italy protesting against unequal responsibility sharing at the EU level at the expense of refugees and migrants. All recent right-wing coalitions in Italy have followed this similar pattern, including in 2018 during former interior minister Salvini’s time, currently vice Prime minister. Back then, his denial of entry to a humanitarian ship carrying migrants and asylum seekers abandoned at sea led to Salvini being charged with kidnapping, and the trial is still ongoing.

The extreme measure of blocking rescue ships from docking, besides being, according to some legal experts in breach of international law, also means that these ships are prevented from resuming their search and rescue operations, and thereby de facto leading to more deaths at sea.

Diplomatic spat with France and praises by Hungary

The crisis generated by the closure of the port led to a diplomatic spat with France. While agreeing to let one of the ships dock in France, France condemned the new Italian government for their “unacceptable behavior”, accusing them of violating international agreements. It also suspended the voluntary relocation of 3.500 refugees from Italy, foreseen by the voluntary solidarity mechanism, which France itself negotiated and put in place during its presidency of the Council of the European Union earlier in 2022.

But in the middle of the dispute with France, and raising tensions with Germany, one government stood up for Italy: Hungary’s Victor Orban sent a message to the new Italian government, thanking them for “protecting European borders”.

While these dynamics are in line with the political leanings of the respective political actors, they illustrate the extent to which actions and discussions around irregular migration in the EU respond purely to domestic and international political considerations rather than the search for actual solutions to the existing challenges, contributing to a dysfunctional system.

Indeed, it is France that under its last EU presidency sought to push for more equal responsibility sharing among EU member states through a system of relocations and cash payments by governments who in turn are unwilling to welcome asylum seekers. The plan was approved and signed by 18 EU countries plus Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. The plan’s very aim was to implement a “voluntary, simple and predictable solidarity mechanism” to ease the burden on countries of first arrival, including, crucially, Italy. According to the proposed scheme, relocation would occur based on population size and the GDP, with Germany taking the largest share of relocations.

In contrast, one of the strongest opponents to the very idea of redistribution quotas is Hungary.  President Victor Orban has undermined any discussions around burden sharing since 2019, when a first coalition of the willing made up of Germany, France, Malta and Italy suggested a voluntary relocation mechanism, discussions which paved the way to this most recent proposal. Indeed, as part of the Visegrad four, made up of Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia, Orban has been successful in rallying a small but very active anti-burden sharing coalition within the EU, ensuring that no agreement could be reached at the EU level.

In short, the Italian government, representing the European country with the highest number of irregular arrivals in Europe in 2022, seems to be basing its migration diplomacy on alliances with the very same country which leads to a block refusing in principle any discussion on relocation and responsibility sharing; simultaneously alienating key potential allies such as France and Germany.

EU action plan: more of the same

In the wake of the conflict between France and Italy over the disembarkation, on the 21st of November, the European Parliament launched the latest EU Action Plan for the Central Mediterranean, which was already in the making in Brussels, containing 20 actions “designed to address the immediate and ongoing challenges along the Central Mediterranean route”. The action plan is based on three pillars: Working with partner countries and international organisations; A more coordinated approach on search and rescue; and Reinforcing the implementation of the Voluntary Solidarity Mechanism and the Joint Roadmap.

The latest of a long series of action plans, the document really does not bring anything new in the existing conversation and approach. Pillar one is still very much based on cooperation with third countries on externalization and the fight against smuggling, which evidence has proven to be ineffective, counterproductive and harmful for refugees and migrants. In addition, it mentions several times increased cooperation with Libya, despite a recent report of the EU presidency questioning the capacity of the country “to protect refugees and migrants from all forms of exploitation, abuse and violence, as too often demonstrated by ill-treatment of those held in detention centres.”

The search and rescue pillar does not acknowledge the fact that the death rate has been dramatically increasing since the end of state-led operations such as Mare Nostrum in 2013-2014 and no proposal to resume such operations is included in the action plans. Quite on the contrary, as mentioned by Amnesty International, “the Commission seems to look for new ways to limit the life-saving work of rescue NGOs that are filling precisely the gap left by states.

Coalition of the willing only realistic way forward?

And we are therefore left with pillar three, the voluntary solidarity mechanism, the very process that the new government in Italy managed to disrupt within weeks from taking office. The mechanism is not new, its implementation so far has been slow, at bestand actually, some commentators argue that it is not the right approach, as a coalition of the willing would somehow leave other EU countries off the hook.

But, at least, it does try to tackle the real issue: the chronic incapacity of EU institutions to agree on anything when it comes to migration policy within Europe, leading to a complete gridlock, amongst other things, on responsibility sharing and reform of the asylum system, for years now. Against this background, and because of the action of governments such as Hungary, what alternatives are there today for the EU other than a coalition of the willing?

To go back to Italy, the new government has to decide which coalition of the willing to choose: the responsibility-sharing coalition or the anti-burden-sharing coalition? But this is a rhetorical question, as the side the current Italian government is on has always been very clear, which does not give much hope for a better, more compassionate, coordinated and equal European response to the arrival of refugees and migrants going ahead.