EU Forum


The position of Italy in Europe's migration and asylum crisis

11 Nov 2016 - 15:11
Source: fabricata / Flickr

Geopolitical exposure, political isolation

Since the closure of the western routes to mainland Spain and the Canary Islands in the early 2000s, the so-called ‘Central Mediterranean route’ has almost constantly represented the main avenue for irregular mixed migration flows towards the EU. In a long-term perspective, the outstanding peak of crossings from Turkey to Greece in 2015 has been an exception. In 2016 (until 23 October), arrivals in southern Italy from North Africa (mainly Libya and, to a smaller extent, Egypt) have almost equalled those to Greece (respectively 153,450 and 169,302, according to IOM).

Italy’s uncomfortable geopolitical position has become dramatically evident, in migratory terms, since 2011, with the fall of two regimes (Ben Ali’s and Qaddafi’s) which had long been playing a crucial role in European externalisation strategies. Departures from Tunisia have since been stemmed, thanks to renewed co-operation with the post-transition Tunisian government. On the other hand, the falling back of Libya in a situation of civil war, since 2014, has produced a large and longstanding rupture in Europe’s belt of externalised migration controls. This has had a strong and direct impact on Italy’s policies and on its relationships with EU institutions and other member states.

Italy had already been claiming for years a more balanced distribution of costs and responsibilities associated with the control, search and rescue (SaR) and protection tasks along that most sensitive stretch of the EU’s external borders. Those claims grew stronger in 2013. The trigger event was a major shipwreck on 3 October (366 victims, at least 20 missing) which pushed the Italian government to launch ‘Mare Nostrum’, a large-scale and costly SaR operation.

Meant as a unilateral assumption of responsibility aimed at gaining credibility and leverage to obtain more European solidarity, Mare Nostrum was a technical success but a political failure, at least in the short term.

Domestic and international criticisms alleging de facto magnet effects led to its discontinuation at the end of 2014. Mare Nostrum was replaced with a smaller and operationally less ambitious multinational Frontex-led operation (Triton). Triton’s limitations caused an immediate surge in migrant deaths, which pushed EU authorities to a gradual and discreet upgrade and to the launch in May 2015 of a joint military operation, Eunavfor-Med (later re-baptised ‘Sophia’).

The (crucial) relationship with Germany: convergences and tensions

Italy’s isolation in the political debate on the reform of the European migration and asylum regime lasted until the summer of 2015, when the opening of the so-called ‘Balkans route’ started bringing large numbers of asylum seekers from the Middle East to central and northern Europe, primarily to Germany and Sweden.

Germany’s policy reactions were rapid and momentous, but incoherent. Shortly after the unexpected decision to unconditionally accept Syrian refugees by unilaterally suspending the implementation of Dublin rules, Berlin partially backtracked by temporarily reintroducing systematic checks at the Schengen border with Austria. From a broader strategic point of view, however, the German policy U-turn meant a radical shift from having long been the strongest advocate of the ‘Schengen + Dublin’ status quo to becoming the most powerful advocate of its reform. This conversion paved the way for a possible convergence of interests with Italy and for a potential reformist alliance, which nevertheless remains half-baked.

On paper, the most relevant outcome of Germany’s new stance and of its convergence with Italy has been the adoption of the two September 2015 relocation decisions, significant in that they traced a hypothetical path beyond the anachronistic Dublin regime. But the implementation failure of the relocation measures, due to unprecedented political splits among member states (most visibly, the Višegrad group), abruptly revealed the limits of real reform of European migration governance.

In the meantime, tensions have been surfacing between Italy and Germany on other important practical issues, such as the adoption of ‘hotspots’ as (still quite rudimentary) tools to enhance and control Italy’s and Greece’s levels of compliance with common rules on the identification of asylum seekers and on the insertion of their biometrical data in the Eurodac database.

Another key area where the relationship between Italy and Germany is complicated is the external dimension of the EU’s migration policy. While both countries agree on the necessity of a major upgrade in co-operation with sending and transit countries, fundamental disagreements exist as regards the financing channels: Italian ideas about ‘EU/Africa bonds’, aired in a ‘non-paper’ calling for a ‘Migration Compact’ (April 2015), were immediately shot down from Berlin. Despite the ‘new Partnership Framework with third countries’, eventually adopted on 28 June 2016, it is very doubtful, however, whether this partly new approach will really be able to produce durable results in terms of reduced migration pressure, without falling back into the contradictions and perverse effects of past policies centred on the outsourcing of migration controls to more or less authoritarian states.

The spectre of ‘bufferisation’

The situation along the ‘Eastern Mediterranean route’ and the Western Balkans ‘corridor’ has eased since the reduction of arrivals in Greece, due to the implementation of the highly controversial March 2016 EU/Turkey deal. But in the meantime, as already highlighted, the level of arrivals from Libya to southern Italy remained stable and high (even with a further increase in registered migrant deaths: 3,195 at 23 October 2016, up from 2,811 in the corresponding period of 2015).

The persistently high level of arrivals in Italy and the possibility of ‘secondary movements’ towards more northern EU countries became highly politicised in spring 2016, particularly in the context of the campaign for Austria’s presidential elections. Such politicisation translated, for example, into repeated threats by Viennese authorities to reintroduce border control checks at the Brenner pass, one of the most important roadways for intra-EU (and specifically Italian/German) trade. The annulment of the second round of the Austrian vote brought a temporary appeasement of these tensions, but things might change again in the wake of the new ballot to be held on 4 December 2016.

With the political and military situation in Libya marked by growing fragmentation and instability, there is no sign that cross-Mediterranean inflows may be curbed soon. On the other hand, legal outflows to other EU states through relocations are virtually blocked (as at 27 September 2016, only 1,196 asylum seekers relocated from Italy). In this context, from an Italian perspective, the spectre of ‘bufferisation’ – namely, of being turned into a bottleneck where growing numbers of forced migrants aiming to reach northern Europe would get stuck – is becoming more concrete and fearsome.

Ferruccio Pastore is the Director of FIERI (International and European Forum for Migration Research).


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