Europe Tries to Seize Momentum for a New Deal on Migration
Instead, Italy felt the bloc’s cold shoulder, and the ensuing popular frustration helped fuel the rise of the anti-immigrant nationalist Matteo Salvini, who virtually sealed ports to ships carrying rescued migrants before his political overreach led to his unexpected exit as interior minister this summer.
With Mr. Salvini gone, centrist European leaders see a chance to apply the lessons of the past and give fresh momentum to efforts to overhaul the bloc’s immigration system.
On Monday, interior ministers from France, Germany, Italy, Malta and Finland, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Council, were scheduled to meet in Malta to discuss a deal that would automatically redistribute migrants on aid ships to some member states immediately following their rescue.
Anna Triandafyllidou, a professor of immigration policies at Ryerson University in Toronto, said, “They see a window of opportunity in Italy, because there’s a government that isn’t screaming about migrants and they don’t know how long this government will last.”
“It’s very important that Salvini is out,” she added.
The Malta meeting will essentially search for a formal workaround to existing European Union treaties, which put heavy burdens on front-line countries like Greece, Italy and Malta by requiring that asylum seekers to stay where they arrive.
Italy’s new interior minister, Luciana Lamorgese, told reporters, “We have a good feeling,” when she landed in Malta on Monday morning.
In the days before the meeting, Italy has advocated that migrants should no longer automatically disembark at the nearest safe port — almost always Greece, Italy or Malta — but that a rotation of European Union member states open their ports as well.
The sorting would be carried out on the ships that would bring them to a designated port in Italy. Germany, Greece, Malta and Spain are reportedly supportive.
French officials have expressed reservations about the idea, but President Emmanuel Macron has indicated he is warm to some sort of new deal.
“I deeply believe the response to the subject of immigration is not in looking inward or in nationalist provocations but in building effective European solutions,” he said in a meeting with the new Italian government in Rome on Wednesday.
Italy is particularly eager to seize the momentum. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who as leader of the previous government had signed off Mr. Salvini’s hard-line legislation and tolerated his invective, has sought to reposition himself, and Italy, back in the European fold.
“There is great willingness to immediately reach even a temporary accord on the redistribution of migrants, which can then be fine tuned,” Mr. Conte said this month in Brussels when he met with the new president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.
After meeting with Mr. Macron last week, Mr. Conte said the two leaders had discussed “an efficient system to disembark, redistribute, and repatriate migrants.”
Then, in a not-so-veiled criticism of Mr. Salvini, he added, “We must make sure the issue of migration isn’t left to those that use it as a permanent topic for their propaganda.”
Mr. Conte has also called for “serious penalties” against member states that refuse to take part in the burden sharing.
But by seeking to take the migration issue off the populist table, some critics of the deal say they are merely providing nationalist leaders in Hungary and Poland, but also in the vibrant oppositions in France and Germany, with more red meat. They see an opportunity to stir more outrage over what they depict as migrant invasions.
A deal to spread migrants around the Continent would only stoke resentment, said Francesco Borgonovo, a journalist at the right-wing Italian paper La Verità.
This week, La Verità will release an anti-migration comic book by Mr. Borgonovo, the cover of which features an African man holding a knife dripping blood. Subtitled, “An Immigration Story,” it recounts the tale of the son of a voodoo priestess who becomes a child soldier before migrating to Italy, where he brutally murders his do-gooder patron and a priest.
Mr. Borgonovo said that Mr. Salvini had introduced realism into the European debate about migration by forcing the issue with his port closures. Even if he was absent, Mr. Borgonovo added, Mr. Salvini was clearly driving the European agenda and would loom over the Malta meeting.
“He’s the nationalist elephant in the room,” he said.
Mr. Salvini and his supporters are already arguing that with the hard-right populist out of power, migration is picking up.
According to data from the interior ministry, September was the first month this year during which the number of migrants surpassed the number of arrivals compared with the same month in the previous year. And that is with several aid ships still impounded under Mr. Salvini’s tough security law.
La Repubblica, a left-leaning daily in Italy, reported more than 300 recent “ghost landings” — occasions in which migrants reach the country’s ports on their own — in less than a week.
In the Aegean Sea, the increase is even sharper. In August, Greece registered its busiest month of migrant arrivals in more than three years.
The European Union has also sought to keep migrants from coming to the Continent by striking deals with Libyan tribal leaders and by setting up much-criticized processing centers in Niger and most recently, in Rwanda.
Politicians across the political spectrum argue that the ultimate answer to the issue of migration lies in development in Africa. But their ideological differences break into the open when the migrants arrive on European shores.
Momentum for a potential deal got a lift this month when the Ocean Viking, an aide ship operated in the Mediterranean Sea by Doctors Without Borders, rescued 82 migrants.
The tough security decree introduced by Mr. Salvini is still in place, potentially imposing steep fines, arrests and ship confiscations on aid vessels that enter Italy without permission. But after six days at sea waiting for a safe port, France and Germany volunteered to take a share of the migrants, which prompted Italy to allow the ship to disembark on the island of Lampedusa.
Italy kept 24 migrants, France and Germany took in 24 each, and others went to Luxembourg and Portugal. The Ocean Viking then rescued 182 more migrants and Italy again granted them a safe port. They were expected to arrive in Messina, Sicily, soon after Monday’s meeting. The ultimate destination of those onboard seemed to depend on the interior ministers’ deliberations.
Mr. Salvini has been furious.
“These are dangerous crazies,” he said in a Sept. 17 post on Facebook, referring to those who wanted to let the migrants in. “But together we can stop them.”