Immigration is going to be the political battleground of the next Italian general elections due in 2018. Virtually all major political leaders have hardened their position on borders protection following the new migration crisis in the Mediterranean. Austerity policies and lack of democracy in the EU integration process were the main concerns during the European elections campaign three years ago. Identity issue is now deepening Italian disaffection with Europe by boosting a patriotic rhetoric promoted by both right-wing and left-wing parties.
The fear of an uncontrolled influx of people has strengthened in the last two years while the sea crossing from Libya to South of Italy has become the main access route for migrants and refugees to Europe. According to the minister of Interior, the number of people arrived on Italian shores has increased almost 7 per cent since the beginning of the year. The current 94.000 asylum seekers  are expected to grow to 200.000 by the end of the summer.
Italy is just a transit country for most of them who try to reach their networks to the North. The Italian government has repeatedly invoked European solidarity to cope with reception problems. However, Italian citizens feel their concerns over immigration are ignored by EU institutions in favor of national interests . The main consequence could be the rise of the first Eurosceptic government among the founder countries.
The Left Dilemma
“We cannot welcome them all”, leftwing leader Matteo Renzi said after his Democratic Party had lost June 2017 local elections to the center-right opponents. The party has been running the government since 2013 and it’s under pressure because of the rising number of asylum seekers and the denial of other EU countries like France to open their ports to refugee rescue boats. Additionally more and more local mayors refuse to welcome new migrants  in a bid to avoid unpopularity amongst their communities.
A recent SWG survey  indicates that the majority of Italians (54 per cent) is in favor of a total ban on new arrivals. This percentage has increased by six points since January. Furthermore back in 2003 65 percent of the Italian public considered migrants a resource but the percentage has now dropped to 35 percent. Researches underline that “approval for hard and simplistic solutions are finding fertile and expansive soil in the middle-low classes, in the middle class affected by the crisis and inflamed in its social identity”. They add that “the immigration issue has been underestimated by European governments and has been faced with an emergency approach”.
The Democratic Party seems to be paying the higher political price for this emergency approach that has exasperated Italian public opinion. When Mr. Renzi served as Italian prime minister up to last December, he used to say only “beasts” want to block immigrants who risk their life crossing the Mediterranean. He changed tone after June council elections by arguing that “too much” of them have been going on national shores these years. The former PM invited left-wing establishment to give traditional identity a good value and suggested to “help migrants in their own countries”. The latter is the same slogan of both far right candidate Matteo Salvini and populist Five Stars Movement.
It’s not just a lexical revolution, because current left-wing government is trying to pursue a ‘law and order’ political action. Italy urges Europe to share the responsibility of migrant crisis and is trying to impose on NGOs operating in the Mediterranean Sea new rules of conduct in order to limit their rescue activities . Rome wants also to speed up the repatriation process for those migrants who are not qualified for international protections. This effort could unfortunately be out of time.
The Populist Option
Immigration is not a new problem for Mediterranean countries but it has become significantly worse following the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi from Libya in 2011. In the past six years Italian politics has been ideologically divided into two factions. The one on the left side supporting extreme hospitality as a duty, the other on the right side accused of xenophobia . Meanwhile no government party has proposed a comprehensive reform of immigration laws. The result is a growing popular concern boosted by a growing sensational approach by mainstream media.
Just six months before the next general elections, the Italian political landscape is now dominated by the current immigration issue. The Left is considering to be chasing its political enemies in order to stop the loss of consents. However this could definitely decrease its chance of victory. Traditional left-wing parties are not yet able to “offer protection” to the weakest member of society because they are associated with the élite in charge, as claimed by sociologist Luca Ricolfi . Mr. Ricolfi, who has a progressive background, suggests this protection nowadays comes easier from populist options.
Underestimating the immigration consequences has strengthened all opposition forces in Italy and weakened citizens’ confidence in the EU. Virtually all politicians publicly blame the European institutions for allowing what they call the “invasion” of Italy. They had done the same in order to justify the high rates of unemployment. Moreover, the recent choice for a proportional electoral system contributes to a greater radicalization of party proposals.
According to current polls, Beppe Grillo’s populist Five Star Movement has the highest chance to lead the next Italian government. The movement wants a political reset and refuses any alliance because of its opposition to the politici di professione (professional politicians). Mr Grillo wants a regulated immigration and a soft European Union, possibly leaving Italy out of the Euro. The programmatic basis of Five Star Movement is very similar to that of Matteo Salvini far right Northern League , a Marine Le Pen ally since 2014.
A Political Gamble
The two populist and Eurosceptic parties account for more than 40 per cent of voting intentions. And a growing number of analysis believes it possible a government alliance among Five Star Movement and Northern League after 2018 elections . This hypothesis could lead Italy to extremely critical positions regarding the European integration process, with a government closer to Hungary’s Orbán (and Putin’s Russia) than to Germany or France.
According to the same polls, in this scenario the Democratic Party could lead a center-left post-vote government only if it were able to arrange a large progressive alliance. Mr. Renzi, who was defeated at a constitutional referendum last December and suffered a recent party split, does not seem inclined to do so. It’s finally the former center-right PM Silvio Berlusconi to play the kingmaker role.
Forza Italia’s leader is against mass immigration and in favor of a EU treaty reform, but he has a moderate approach closer to Merkel’s Germany. With his 15 percent, Mr. Berlusconi could decide to rebuild a center-right alliance with Northern League by breaking the extremist axis. Such a coalition could also win the elections, based on current projections. In alternative, Mr. Berlusconi could decide to make a deal with Renzi’s Democrats and give birth to a great coalition government.
What is certain is that anyone wishing to govern Italy should be more or less patriotic on the two issues that are dividing national public opinion. Summing up Grillo, Salvini, Berlusconi and their allies strength, ‘Italians first’ motto is worth more than 60 per cent of consents. A remaining 20-25 percent belongs to a Democratic Party leader who is promising Brussels not to pay Italian EU budget shares without new immigration aides measures.
In the face of the migrant crisis, Italy feels treated as the periphery of Europe. And it is not a fleeting sentiment. A recent Demos survey  published on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Treaties of Rome indicates that only 34 percent of Italian citizens still have trust in European Union, back in the 1998 the figure was 73 percent.
The more Italians feels overlooked by Europe in migrant crisis, the more Eurosceptic position will grow in the electoral polls. It would mean a request for greater border control power, for a Dublin rules on refugees reform and for more identity laws. Every next Italian government will have to take it in account.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Euro Crisis in the Press blog nor of the London School of Economics.
Alessandro Franzi is a Milan-based journalist who works for Italian news agency Ansa. He writes about politics with particular interest in the Northern League and centre-right parties. He holds a bachelor degree in History and he is MA Science Political candidate at University of Milan with a thesis in Eurosceptic movements.
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