Nicholas Farrell

Matteo Salvini’s tough immigration stance is paying off

Matteo Salvini's tough immigration stance is paying off
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Well, stone me. A new “populist” government in Italy actually does something to stop the NGO taxi service which ferries migrants masquerading as refugees from the Libyan coast to Sicily 350 miles away. It does what no Italian government has dared do before and refuses to allow an NGO ship with hundreds of migrants on board, nearly all men from sub-Saharan Africa, or men pretending to be boys, to dock in Italy. And it says it will block all NGO migrant ships in the future.

Europe’s liberal imperialists are duly appalled at what the deplorable populists now in charge of the EU’s fourth largest economy have done. Whether left-wing multiculturalists or right-wing global capitalists, they see migrants as the key weapon to end both Europe’s demographic crisis and its nation states. But guess what? Most Italian people do not agree with them at all. They see this mass illegal immigration as an existential threat to their country, culture and jobs. And so they applaud this new Italian government – a coalition of the alt left Five Star Movement and the hard right Lega – and its popularity soars.

The Lega, whose leader Matteo Salvini, the new interior minister and deputy prime minister, is the driving force behind Italy’s refusal to allow the NGO rescue ship, Aquarius, to land its 629 migrants in Sicily, is reaping the benefits of this stance. All NGO vessels should take their migrants instead, Salvini insists, to the first safe port as required by maritime law; Malta, for instance, is far nearer to Libya, but last year took in only 23 migrants compared to Italy’s 120,000. While Tunisia, which is right next door to Libya, hardly takes in any. So popular is his migrant boat ban that the Lega has now replaced Five Star as the party in Italy with the most support in the polls. At the general election in March, the Lega got 17 per cent of the votes and Five Star 32 per cent. Now, according to a major poll by TG La7 this week, support for the Lega has shot up to 29.2 per cent. Meanwhile, support for Five Star has fallen to 29 per cent. 

The decision to turn away NGO migrant vessels is popular right across the political spectrum; according to another poll by Ipsos, it is supported by nearly two thirds of Italians (59 per cent). No Italian government has enjoyed such support except perhaps Silvio Berlusconi – Italy's most voted for politician of the post-war period and four times premier – in his prime. And to think that in the previous general election in 2013, just before Salvini became leader, the Lega got only four per cent of the vote.

More surprisingly, perhaps, Italy’s coalition government of left and right wing populists, who were sworn enemies in the election campaign, is united on the issue. According to the Ipsos poll, 86 per cent of Five Star voters and 93 per cent of Lega voters agree with Salvini’s decision to block the NGO ships. Hostility to illegal mass immigration has united both the left and the right in Italy. This is not because Italians are racists. It is because, since 2013, 700,000 migrants have arrived in Italy by sea. Italians are willing to take in real refugees but what has been going on for the past five years in the Mediterranean is a grotesque charade. The only solution – they know – is to process migrants for refugee status in Africa. Punto e basta!

At any one time, there are 180,000 migrant asylum seekers in Italy’s government-funded hostels costing 5 billion euro a year. Only seven out of every hundred asylum applications are accepted, Salvini has said, but few migrants are ever deported. Even more migrants refuse to apply for asylum and just disappear. The Italians are angry with the EU, which has done next to nothing either to stop these migrants being shipped to Italy or to help share them out to other member states.

They are angry with neighbouring EU states such as France and Austria which have suspended Schengen – the agreement which enshrines the EU’s sacred principle of free movement – at their borders with Italy and send back all migrants caught trying to get north as in Italy there is neither welfare nor work: youth unemployment is at 33 per cent – double in the crucified south; and GDP has been mostly stagnant for years.

Above all, though, Italians are angry with the French for their arrogant moral posturing and blatant double standards. Emmanuel Macron said Salvini’s decision to block the Aquarius – operated by SOS Mediterranée and Médecins sans Frontières – was irresponsible and cynical. Salvini retorted that the Italians would not take lessons from the French of all people, as Italy had done far more to help migrants than France and Spain put together. France, for example, has this year alone sent back to Italy 10,000 migrants who slipped across the border, according to Salvini. And France has taken only 640 of the 9,816 migrants it promised to take from Italy under a failed scheme to share out some of the migrants in Italy and Greece among other member states. This is the same France, let’s not forget, which berates Britain for not taking the Calais migrants. 

On Sunday, the Aquarius arrived in Valencia after Spain’s new minority socialist government in a bravura act of virtue signalling agreed to take its migrants. A crowd of thousands, including hundreds of journalists, greeted them along with placards in four languages declaring: “Welcome to your home”. This is the same Spain that has erected a huge fence of razor wire around Ceuta, the Spanish city on the Moroccan coast, to keep out migrants.

As the Aquarius docked in Spain, Salvini remarked in a speech near Monza to Lega supporters:

“The party is over for the traffickers of human beings who have treated Italy like a refugee camp (…) As I speak a ship is arriving in Spain with 629 presumed refugees on board and I thank the Spanish Government and I trust that it will take in another 66,629 presumed refugees. We won’t be in the least offended. And if after the Spanish the French, the Portuguese and the Maltese did their bit, then we’d be the happiest people in the world!”

Half of the migrants brought to Valencia have already made it clear that they want to leave Spain and apply for asylum – mais oui – in France. I cannot wait to see how Macron, who so brutally sends back to Italy migrants who reach France from Ventimiglia, will react. Will he send them straight to Calais?