Skip to main content

Around this time last year, Italy’s first female prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, was elected bringing to Palazzo Chigi the nation’s most right-wing government since 1945. At the helm of this coalition was Meloni’s party Fratelli d’Italia (FdI), a national conservative organization with roots in the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano. One of the main concerns raised by analysts in the leadup to the election was that if this coalition came to power, it could foment disagreements between the Italian state and its EU partners over the issue of migration. Specifically, if its economic plans falter, the coalition would be inclined to pick fights over migration policies.

These concerns were well-founded since the prime minister and her allies in the past had frequently mentioned illegal immigration, the migrant crisis, and the threat of “ethnic substitution” in speeches, interviews, and on social media. Both Meloni and Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing populist Lega party, which played a key role in pushing the coalition to victory, spoke candidly to the press about their belief in a plan to replace Italians with immigrants. For example, in 2017 Meloni stated that she believes “there is a plan for ethnic substitution in Italy” while Salvini was quoted in 2015 on RaiNews arguing that there is “an attempt to genocide the peoples who inhabit Italy for some centuries” and that some individuals “would like to replace (Italians) with tens of thousands of people coming from around the world.” This sort of rhetoric would continue to appear on FdI social media posts, in addition to referencing George Soros as the “financier” who sustains “mass-immigration and ethnic substitution around the world.” While Meloni and Salvini haven’t spoken publicly about ethnic substitution since coming to power, Francesco Lollobrigida, Meloni’s brother in law and the Minister of Agriculture, attracted criticism in April of this year after stating that low birth rates in Italy can’t be resolved with ethnic substitution.

With regard to the parties’ plan to curb illegal immigration, FdI was known among the Italian electorate for its radical proposal to form a naval blockade. The parties’ proposal describes how an “European military mission, carried out in agreement with the Libyan authorities” would see funds sent to the coast of Libya to control the flux of migrants. Additionally, the program stipulates that these wouldn’t be “expulsions” since they occurred in open water. During the electoral campaign, the proposal was made the subject of multiple posts on Meloni’s social media page where it sometimes juxtaposed against to the policies of the center-left Partito Democratico (PD), the parties main opponent in the election.

In fact, FdI would make its social media presence a key aspect of the campaign. As Joseph Cerrone writes, it was the most active party on Twitter “issuing almost 9,000 tweets” totally outshining the PD which didn’t even break 2,500 tweets during the campaign. The content of the tweets varied yet the word sbarchi (landings) appeared frequently in those made by members of the coalition highlighting its stance on illegal immigration. However, after the coalition was able to win the 2022 election, implementing its anti-migration polices proved to be an exceedingly difficult task.

The Pragmatic Shift

Two realties quickly set in for the right-wing government: the Italian population is quickly growing older, and migrants help meet the demands of Italian business who require laborers. With respect to the aging population, Italy is experiencing the third fastest population ageing in the world after Japan and Korea. Meanwhile, the business lobby, which has traditionally been close to the right-wing bloc, recognized the need for migrant labor and has since pressured the government to modify its stance on immigration.

To understand how the government reacted, I spoke with Matteo Villa, a senior research fellow with the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, who stated that the Meloni government made an extremely left-wing decision when it comes to regulating normal immigration into Italy as it raised the Decreto Flussi (Flow decree), which stipulates how many non-EU foreign citizens can enter Italy for work, by a significant margin. Between 2012 and 2020 the number of those allowed to enter remained under 50,000. However, in 2021 and 2022, under Prime Minister Mario Draghi, it was raised. What is surprising is that, after coming to power, the Meloni government raised the Flow decree again allowing for more than 100,000 foreign citizens to enter in 2022.

“Starting in 2021 it was raised but the Meloni government raised it again to meet the business demands,” Villa said during his interview. “For the first time there is a Programmazione Triennale (three-year-plan), something the progressive left has always asked the government to do.” What this entails is that, instead of listing the number of non-EU foreign citizens who can enter on a yearly basis, the government has provided figures up until 2025. What’s notable is how the number is gradually increasing with eventually over 150,000 workers allowed to enter by the final year. This decision highlights how within the Meloni government, as of now, the pragmatic forces have prevailed over the more ideological ones. Regardless, this decision wasn’t highly publicized with the government remaining relatively silent about its decision. “Few people in Italy have heard of this this,” Villa said. “After all, there were certain promises about immigration that they had made to the electorate.”

Graph provided by ISPI using data from the Interior Ministry

This isn’t to say that there hasn’t been a lack of initiative on the governments behalf to stop the flow of migrants. The Meloni administration, having come to terms with the fact that Italy needs immigrants, decided to focus its attention on illegal immigration coming by sea. On the 23rd of February, decree 1/2023 “urgent provisions for the management of migratory flows” was passed into law stipulating that vessels which save refugees must immediately request access to a port after conducting a single rescue operation. In the case of any infractions, the organizations involved will receive a fine of between 10,000 to 50,000 euros.

The law seeks to hinder non-governmental organizations, who perform the search and rescue operations, in carrying out their responsibilities thus reducing the number of illegal migrants landing on Italian soil. Additionally, Villa noted how the ports assigned to the NGOs were in the center north of the Italian peninsula, instead of in the south where most of the migrant ships are turning up. The law was condemned by not only the NGOs, but also by the United Nation which urged the government to roll back the decree. However, the government hasn’t backed down with Meloni stating during the International Conference on Development and Migration that “Italy and Europe need immigrants” and therefore “those that enter illegally shouldn’t be rewarded.”

Regardless, the number of landings has increased. In fact, reports last month indicate that, during the first seven months of 2023, the number of migrant landings more than doubled when compared to the same period last year. This increase is primarily due to the increase in NGO ships in the area. Additionally, the coast guard hasn’t actively abided to the new law. “Out of fear of there being a shipwreck, the coast guard has allowed the NGO ships to bypass the law and perform more than one rescue operation at a time before returning to port,” Villa said.

In short, after coming to terms with the fact that Italian businesses will require more laborers, the government sought to counterbalance the increase in legal migration by curbing the flux of refugees. However, having failed in stopping the arrival of new migrants, the coalition cannot even claim to have limited migration as a whole.

An Uneasy Alliance?

With this new approach to the migration issues, Meloni has attracted the ire of both the electorate and fellow right-wing politicians. On social media, individuals which had previously voted for the coalition expressed their disapproval by calling the premier Giorgia traditrice (Giorgia the traitor). Furthermore, in August Lega member and deputy mayor of Lampedusa (one the islands hardest hit by the migrant crisis) Attilo Lucia remarked how the situation on the island is becoming unmanageable. “What is this government doing? What are its intentions? Where did Prime Minister Meloni go, who spoke of a ‘naval blockade’?” Lucia said.

Leader of the Lega party Matteo Salvini, who is well known for its anti-immigration rhetoric, since coming to power for the second time has gradually ceased to mention immigration in his tweets. Yet, it is not clear to what extent the one-time regionalist party members are onboard with the government’s choices and, consequently, if they intend on sustaining the coalition government. “Salvini has a weapon which is to say that he was the only one who could reduce the amount migrants, something Meloni couldn’t do,” Villa said later adding that, with the current state of his party in the polls, letting the coalition collapse was not likely to occur.

There is a line in singer-songwriter Rino Gaetano’s song Ti Ti Ti Ti which aptly summarizes this shift in policy: Partono tutti incendiari e fieri ma quando arrivano sono tutti pompieri (They all start off as proud fire starters, but once they arrive, they all become firefighters.) With ideological rhetoric appearing to cool off, it remains to be seen if the coalition can remain united.

Photo: “Participation d’Ursula von der Leyen, présidente de la Commission européenne, au sommet du Conseil européen,” by European Commission (Christophe Licoppe) licensed under CC BY 4.0.