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The European Danger of Italy’s Migration Anger

The results from Sunday’s election in Italy are in and the populist wave upending European politics has claimed another victim. Sure, economic stagnation and a newfound ambivalence towards Europe played a role in the campaigns. But, only one issue made a real difference: immigration.

Four of the five leading parties were elected on a platform promising to get tough on immigration; the most moderate of these pledged to deport 600,000 immigrants in the next twelve months. Now, some combination of these populist groups will probably form Italy’s next government.

Sadly, immigration is becoming the quicksand of many Western democracies. Europe is in full resistance to the notion of becoming an American-style melting pot. In country after country, anger and intolerance are winning against openness and solidarity. Nowhere is this truer than in Italy where citizens rage equally about their government’s inability to stem the tide and Europe’s lack of assistance. Though Italy managed to reduce by one-third the illegal Mediterranean crossings in 2017, over 119,000 refugees still made it across. Since 2013, Italians have had to absorb almost 700,000 migrants arriving by boat from Libya all on their own.

Italians watch indignantly as the world frets about Northern Europe’s problems such as Brexit and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government. Meanwhile, not even one of Italy’s neighbors allowed even a single ship of migrants to dock in 2017. As summertime crossings increased, over 10,000 refugees disembarked onto Italian soil in the last three days of June. France, Switzerland and Austria had closed their borders.

All of us who live in the West need to worry about the success of Italian populists’ anti-immigration crusade. Italy’s populism has all the familiar anti-democratic hallmarks we’re now used to seeing: fake news and Russian support, rhetoric that fans extreme polarization, Euroscepticism, Islamophobia, attacks on the press, and racism. Just as the deplorable leaders of Hungary and Poland inspire Italy’s far right, the success of populists in Italy will fan the flames of hatred elsewhere in Europe.

This election’s results for Matteo Salvini’s Lega is the perfect example. Deploying poisonous rhetoric, including branding refugees as “drug dealers, rapists, burglars,” Salvini captured 17.5 percent of the vote (a huge improvement from 4 percent in 2013), with strong showings in Southern Italy. With these results, Salvini successfully expanded the base of his party beyond its traditional northern constituency.

Matteo Salvini of Lega Nord (Northern League) was a big winner. (via Facebook)

Worryingly, experts’ predictions about future migration trends will make matters even more difficult for centrists.

According to a new study from the Pew Research Center, migration from African nations has increased dramatically in the last three decades. Except for war-torn Syria, Africa now accounts for nine out of the 10 fastest growing international migrant populations since 2010 – that’s more than 25 million people living outside their country of birth.

With the deepening security crisis in the Sahel, the absence of governance, economic opportunity and pressures of climate change, these figures could quite easily double in the coming decade. And unlike the constructive role played by Mexico in stemming US-bound immigrant flows, Libya seems to be sinking into a swamp of violent tribal areas dependent on smuggling everything from humans to drugs.

The raw anger expressed in Sunday’s Italian vote is an alarm bell. Let’s try to understand what can be done to address it to save European integration from falling apart.

New facts are needed. Many have argued against the prevailing xenophobic winds that Europe, with an aging population and falling birthrates, needs immigrants as the only long-term solution to its generous social security system. But Merkel’s political nightmare after she pledged to absorb a million Syrian refugees was enough to dissuade other European countries from similar pledges.

What is left is for Europe to act with double pronged urgency. To stop the populists, European defense budgets – long sacrificed to the welfare state – must grow. Europe’s common defense must become reality with an increased Mediterranean naval presence strong enough to make a dent against human smuggling. Europe must also concentrate its sizeable economic, political and military weight on the eight Sahel countries that must be stabilized in the next decade.

It may not have been a Brexit-scale event, but what happened in Italy on Sunday was a vote of anger and frustration, one that may bear negative consequences for the future of European integration and democracy. Responsible European leaders must act in concert to defend democracy from racism and xenophobia, all while convincing voters that they understand the issues surrounding immigration.

Until the EU can come up with an effective and comprehensive strategy to confront the migrant crisis, including enhanced security and aid interventions in the migrant source countries, immigration will continue to feed the nationalist populist threat.