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Populism in Italy

Crime Wanes but Populists Play on Public Angst

August 28, 2019 | by CRAIG WILLY

Operation Triton in the Southern Mediterranean Sea. Photo by the Irish Defence Forces via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

While fear about crime and immigration runs high in Italy, crime rates and the number of new arrivals are actually falling. Italy’s nationalist right wing is tapping into this unease, but what are the chances of shifting public opinion back towards the facts?

There is a paradox in Italy: illegal immigration and crime are increasingly prominent in the political discourse, even though they are declining. The latest Bertelsmann Stiftung’s SGI report on how internal security policy protects its citizens against crime, shows how Safe Living Conditions have actually increased slightly between 2014 and 2018. The nation’s homicide rate is, according to the report, even lower than that of the U.K. or Germany. In stark contrast, public perception of insecurity is running high: for example, some eight out of 10 Italians said in one poll that crime worsened in 2018.

Even though the number of illegal immigrants arriving by sea declined significantly between 2017 and 2018, falling from 119,000 to 23,400, the League (Lega) party has profited from linking the topic of migration to the feeling of insecurity. It has thrived since coming to power with leader Matteo Salvini as interior minister. The party has won several local elections and finished first in the May European elections, receiving 34.33 percent of the vote. The center-left Democratic Party won 22.69 percent while the Five-Stars collapsed to a mere 17.07 percent. Salvini’s formula of opposing illegal immigration, cracking down on those perceived to be facilitating illegal immigration (notably NGOs, most prominently with the arrest of Carola Rackete, the German captain of a ship rescuing migrants), and being tough on migration related crime appears to have paid off.

Political dividends from being tough on immigration

Italians seem to be mainly concerned with economic and migratory issues today. According to a February-March 2019 Eurobarometer poll, Italians considered the following issues to be equally important topics for the EU elections: immigration, the economy, and youth unemployment. One poll found that two thirds of Italians saying lawmakers should deal with economy and development, and only one quarter mentioning immigration and crime.

Paradoxically, the Lega seems to have benefitted more from focusing on immigration than the Five-Stars have from focusing on the economy. Both the Lega and the Five-Stars have loudly opposed the EU’s demands for more balanced budgets, but it appears only the nationalists have won politically with this confrontational approach. The Five-Stars, which focused on economic promises with a basic income and a reduction of youth unemployment, look to have lost credibility. A tough migratory policy seems to be easier to implement than a competent economic one.

There are no obvious ways of fighting the rising nationalist and populist wave in Italy, although it is likely to subside with time. The previous Social Democratic governments also confronted EU austerity and eventually cracked down on illegal immigration, suggesting that the current conflict between Rome and Brussels is not fleeting but structural, reflecting differences in opinion and interest between European nation-states. The populist government, of course, has intensified the matter.

Future migrant crises loom

Illustrating the unpredictability of Italian politics, Salvini, who is also Italy’s deputy prime minister, has called for a snap election, urging Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to confirm that the ruling coalition, comprised of the nationalist Northern League and the populist Five Star Movement, is no longer tenable. Italy’s ruling League party has also tabled a motion of no confidence in the prime minister. These surprise developments follow months of infighting and animosity between the coalition partners.

If an election were held today, the Lega, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, and the Brothers of Italy would receive an absolute majority of the vote.

Given these uncertain political times, now, more than ever, dialogue will be necessary if public policy is to be based on facts rather than impressions. Hard thinking and practical support on the part of European partners on how to help Italy in the face of future migrant crises, which are likely given Africa’s rapid population growth and the violent instability of the Middle East and North Africa, would also help to forestall further political radicalization. Furthermore, Italy’s economic situation could be alleviated through a combination of domestic reform and the consolidation of a more coherent eurozone. However, should confrontations gain pace between Brussels and Rome, let alone with Berlin and Paris, they will impede much-needed stability within the eurozone bloc, worsening the outlook for Italy and elsewhere.

Craig Willy is an EU affairs writer.

This article was first published by the EU Observer

Photo: Irish Defense Forces via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

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