Director & BRIDGES Scientific Co-coordinator
Tracking shifts in the Italian sovereigntist discourse on migration
In the run-up to the Italian national elections of September 2022, the leader of the right-wing coalition, Giorgia Meloni, was consistently busy in mitigating her pristine sovereignist discourse in order not to frighten away moderate voters, European institutions, international allies, investors, and markets.
Migration stood out conspicuously as one of the very few issues (if not the only one) on which she could afford to continue deploying an unchecked sovereignist rhetoric, infallibly able to warm up her public (here a more detailed analysis).
Such electoral migration narrative was essentially hinged upon a conspirationist argument according to which the left willingly allowed hundreds of thousands of non-western bogus asylum seekers to flood the country in order to please economic elites by providing them cheap labour at the expenses of native workers (here a paradigmatic example of such argumentation).
After coming to power, this quite standard (meaning also very little tailored on national specificities and paradoxically very globalised) sovereignist migration narrative had to face a number of structural constraints and find ways of adapting. In particular, three main lines of tension (and subsequent attempts to adapt) emerged.
From narrative to action
First, on the side of migration controls, no decisive measure could so far be adopted. Ambitions were already downgraded during the first stage of the electoral campaign, when thundering threats of a naval blockade in the Central Mediterranean were dropped upon realising how unsurpassable the legal and geopolitical hurdles were. Once in power, an immediate priority of the new majority – and especially of its Lega component – was to further hamper search and rescue activities by NGOs, even though the role of such organisations had already been made marginal by previous legislative and administrative interventions. Little later, a decisive test came with the tragic shipwreck off the coast of the Calabrian town of Cutro in the night between 25 and 26 February 2023 (94 corpses recovered plus a still undefined number of missing). In the immediate aftermath a new urgency decree was adopted enforcing a significant increase in penalties for smugglers. But in spite of such attempts at reinforcing deterrence, arrivals since the beginning of 2023 remained at relatively high levels (as of 19 May, 45,808 against 17,154 in the corresponding period of 2022).
In order to reduce the perception of “invasion” that she herself and her allies had actively stoked until little before, Giorgia Meloni also made some diplomatic efforts at EU level, with the aim of revitalising the reform process of the Dublin system and reintroduce some form of relocation of asylum seekers. This too, however, was ineffective. Attempts to sell a purely symbolical and inconsequential passage of February 2023 European Council’s conclusions (“[migration is a] European challenge that requires a European response”) as a diplomatic victory fell in the void.
A second line of tension emerged between restrictionist electoral promises and pressing labour market needs, made even more intensive by the wave of public investments fueled by the gradual disbursement of NextGen-EU funds. It needs to be stressed that the governing coalition feels this issue with particular intensity as it has in small and medium business owners an important basis of consensus. In order to respond to such demand, at the end of December 2022, the Meloni government adopted a moderately expansive “flows decree” (Decreto-flussi) (i.e., the governmental act setting a maximum threshold for legal admissions for working purposes) allowing 82,705 new entries against 69,700 the year before.
But in the meantime, in order to avoid charges of weakness and preserve a façade of prioritising Italian job-seekers, the executive introduced a norm imposing a stricter labour market test (verifica di indisponibilità) to be carried out by regional Employment Centres. It is too early to assess its practical impact, but based on historical precedents it is safe to anticipate that this will only turn into unproductive delays in recruitment procedures, with no real impact on natives’ unemployment.
A third line of tension concerns the longer term, with the debate on demographic decline which has finally come closer to the top of the agenda after years in which it was essentially confined to expert circles. Here, the Meloni narrative is strongly pro-natalist and excludes any structural role of immigration in the comprehensive strategy that Italy ever more urgently needs to counter plummeting birth rates, ageing and shrinking workforce, and the prospective decline in workers’ contributions to the pension system. The problem is that any pro-natalist policy, however bold and effective, cannot by definition produce effects but in the long term (when the extra-children conceived today will eventually enter the labour market). In the meantime, more immigration will undoubtedly be needed.
Speaking to guts and wallets
To sum up, the strong and consistent sovereignist narrative deployed before the elections, which certainly contributed to the electoral victory, has evolved since the formation of the Meloni government in two main ways.
On the side of “illegal migration”, the narrative maintained a harshly repressive dimension, but at the price of showing – de facto – little capacity to curb unplanned arrivals. Some very stentorian slogans on the necessity to upgrade investments in the creation of employment opportunities in Africa were also added, but with no concrete impact so far on the actual volume of development cooperation funds. A new grand strategy to contain migration pressure from Africa is announced for the next Autumn. It is called “Piano Mattei”, after a protagonist of the Italian oil industry who died in 1962 in a highly suspect airplane crash after having challenged US and British oil majors by directly and aggressively negotiating with post-colonial leaderships in North Africa and the Middle East. Constant monitoring is needed to see how this new narrative bubble will evolve.
As for the legal migration side, the original restrictionist narrative has already been watered down, bringing it closer to traditional mainstream narratives based on the juxtaposition of “good” immigration (i.e., the one useful for us) to “bad” immigration, basically equaled with an unplanned and unselected one (for a thorough analysis of how such master frame is articulated in the Italian media, see here).
So, what next? How will this narrative shift evolve? Will the Italian right continue along a path of pragmatic mitigation of its initially uncompromising anti-migrationist and sovereignist narrative? Or will it persist in an ambiguous mix of threat frames speaking to the guts and utilitarian arguments speaking to the wallet of the electorate?
If I had to bet, I would choose the second scenario. If only, because Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia) are constantly exposed to velvet-gloved but ruthless internal competition from Matteo Salvini’s Lega, whose rhetoric on migration didn’t experience any perceptible mitigation. I hope I will lose the bet.