Much of the response to the 2018 Italian election result has focused on the role of immigration in boosting support for the Five Star Movement and Lega. James L. Newell writes that the immigration issue is unlikely to diminish in importance over the coming years. The country’s ageing population and a ‘brain drain’ from many Italian regions could make attracting foreign citizens vital for Italy’s economy, but this will have to be balanced against the hostility many Italians now feel toward immigration.
Credit: Rafael Peñaloza (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The issue of immigration had a very high profile in Italy’s election campaign. This was especially true from 3 February when a 28-year-old, Luca Traini, with evident far-right sympathies, went on the rampage in the city of Macerata, wounding with a shotgun six people, all of sub-Saharan African origin.
Both the League and the Five Star Movement, among others, exploited the event to frame immigration as a significant problem: while condemning violence, the League’s Matteo Salvini declared that the incident was evidence that what he called ‘uncontrolled immigration’ led to social conflict. The Five Star Movement’s Alessandro di Battista, meanwhile, responded to condemnation by spokespersons for the mainstream parties by demanding silence on the part of those who had ‘political responsibilities’ for what had happened. So what role did immigration play in the election outcome and what impact will it have on Italy’s relations with Europe?
Let us begin by considering the phenomenon of migration itself. It is not new, but one with which Italians have become increasingly familiar since the 1980s, and there are now about five million foreign nationals legally resident in Italy representing about 8.3% of the population. The so-called refugee crisis began around 2013, with thousands trying to reach Italy by boat across the Mediterranean and thousands dying in the process. Conflict in countries such as Syria and Libya has often been suggested as a key driver, though more general factors – such as climate change and global social networks – have also played a role. What might be better labelled a humanitarian emergency has given rise to public controversy thanks to the strain it has put on hosting and integration policies, as well as the tensions it has created between the Italian government and the EU over the scale of Italian involvement in patrolling and rescue operations, leading to demands for common EU crisis management.
The situation has triggered public discussion of other relevant issues such as Italy’s nationality law and Europeanisation. For instance, 2017 saw intense controversy over (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to persuade Parliament to replace ius sanguinis with ius soli as the basic principle underlying the nationality laws in order to address the issue of increasing numbers of people who have been born in Italy but who do not hold Italian citizenship. There has been considerable tension between Italy and other EU member states arising over the conflict between the Schengen free-movement principles and the so-called Dublin principle placing responsibility for assessing asylum claims on the government of the first country of arrival (enabling other states to reject claims and send migrants back to Italy).
All of this has raised the temperature of citizens’ socio-economic, cultural and security concerns. This in turn has provided fertile ground for political entrepreneurs, especially those on the populist right who have sought to exploit the growing divide between the better educated in secure employment – comfortable with the economic and cultural consequences of globalisation – and the less well educated who are culturally conservative and whose employment globalisation renders relatively insecure. Once the bedrock of support for parties of the left and centre left, these voters have essentially been abandoned by parties whose traditional narratives of internationalism and solidarity have long been in cultural retreat and which, in endorsing the assumptions of the neo-liberal consensus, have taken over the narratives of their adversaries on the right.
The right’s success in exploiting immigration as an issue was revealed by the results of a poll carried out by the private research institute, Tecnè, in early February. This showed that besides considerably overestimating the scale of the migration phenomenon (the proportion of foreigners among the population was perceived as being 21% on average) the sample believed, in 63% of cases, that immigration was responsible for an increase in crime. Some 64% expressed a negative judgement of the Government’s immigration policies, while 56% of those intending to vote for the centre-right perceived immigration as one of the principal problems facing the country.
Analyses since the election have suggested that support for the League – the party making the largest advance as well as the party giving most space to immigration in its campaign – was not linked with the size of the immigrant population. At the national level, it performed better in provinces with higher proportions of foreign-born residents but this was due to the fact that it performed better in the more prosperous North where migrants tend to concentrate. Within the North, there were no significant differences in League performance between provinces with higher and lower proportions of migrants.
On the other hand, an analysis carried out for the Italian Centre for Electoral Studies shows that controlling for other variables, including geographical area, support for the League was highest in those provinces where rates of growth in the proportions of migrants had been highest. This is interesting in that it is consistent with findings for other European countries showing a lack of any apparent relationship between levels of net migration and expressions of hostility/public concern about the issue; if anything, the relationship is between recent immigration and hostility – suggesting that opinions are malleable.
On 7 March, the European Commission published its 2018 Country Report on Italy, noting that the old age dependency ratio stood at 34.3% and was forecast to exceed 60% by 2045 as the country’s fertility rate was set to remain low. Meanwhile, thanks to the ‘brain drain’, net immigration had been declining and in the poorer southern regions was negative. Many argue, therefore, that immigration is essential to helping Italy overcome its economic problems, especially to ensure the sustainability of the pensions system, since immigrants are on average younger than Italians and have a higher fertility rate.
It is therefore unlikely (given Brussels’ keen interest in decisions relating to the Italian economy as well as in management of the refugee crisis), that the anti-immigrant rhetoric of parties like the League will find expression in any major items of legislation without opposition from the EU. In that event we might see a further decline in the EU’s legitimacy, and a further undermining of the European project as we have come to know it.
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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
James L. Newell – University of Salford
James L. Newell is Professor of Politics in the School of Arts and Media at the University of Salford. He recently edited a special issue of the Italian journal Polis on Politics, citizens’ engagement and the state of democracy in Italy and UK with Arianna Giovannini. He is Treasurer of the PSA’s Italian Politics Specialist Group.
You want Italy to take immigrants to keep the economy going but why not use robots instead?
Immigrants grow old, retire, fall ill and, in sufficient numbers, create ethnic minorities that change a country very markedly and reduce social cohesion. Robots do not do any of these things.
If Italy were to follow the example of Japan and remain ethnically homogeneous this could be the catalyst is to put money into robots and information technology.
The other possibility is to bring in immigrants on a contract basis and for them to go home when their contract is over. This is the basis on which foreigners work in the Gulf states and many countries around the world.
that’s the very argument that those xenophobes at AfD and UKIP put forward to mansplain how a digital utopia will bring forth (white christian) brotherhood.
yea, because throwing stones at dark-skinned muslims sounds a tad racist, and not a vote-winner (beyond already convinced-racists)
bunch of populist idiots all the same
It’s not xenophobic to want to reduce at least non European immigration to a trickle. It is every Italian’s patriotic duty.
“On 7 March, the European Commission published its 2018 Country Report on Italy, noting that the old age dependency ratio stood at 34.3% and was forecast to exceed 60% by 2045 as the country’s fertility rate was set to remain low. Meanwhile, thanks to the ‘brain drain’, net immigration had been declining and in the poorer southern regions was negative. Many argue, therefore, that immigration is essential to helping Italy overcome its economic problems, especially to ensure the sustainability of the pensions system, since immigrants are on average younger than Italians and have a higher fertility rate.”
If immigrants didn’t age, and if they contributed more to the welfare state than they withdraw.. maybe they would have a point. However, they obviously *do* age – you will just need mass immigration again in the future because immigrant birth rates tend to converge over time, it’s just a delay of the problem.. and many immigrants do not contribute more to the welfare state than they withdraw (it very much depends on country of origin). So unless these are highly selected high skilled immigrants.. it doesn’t even fix the problem in the short run.
The primary problem with an ageing population is that birth rates were high after the Second World War then declined. It is a fundamentally temporary problem so arguing that immigration is just “delaying the problem” doesn’t make much sense. The problem Italy and many other countries face is they have a growing population of older citizens and too few younger taxpayers to pay for them in the short-term (i.e. the coming decades). What happens beyond then will depend on whether the demographics become rebalanced (although there is a long-term element to this caused by people living longer in general).
As for the point about whether all immigrants contribute to the tax system, there are some broad factors in favour of immigration here. The first is that if you take an immigrant at the age of 18 you’re getting 40+ years of productive labour out of them without having to pay for the many years where they were a drain on the system. Second, if you don’t make up this shortfall with immigration then it’s difficult to see what palatable solutions there are as an alternative (putting the bonkers idea above that Japan has solved it by using robots to one side). Immigration is unpopular, but so is cutting pensions, so is raising the retirement age, so is austerity, so is cutting workers’ rights to improve productivity. So what is the alternative?
It appears to me that as with so many issues in politics the party that ignores the inevitable and tells people what they want to hear (the Five Star Movement in this case) is the one that proves most popular. Well the time has come for them to prove they have an alternative model, to work together with other parties and to solve the wider problems facing the country. Unfortunately we already know how that story will end.
You note that Lega voting tends to be stronger where there has been a recent surge in immigrant numbers. You also state that Southern Italy has fewer immigrants.
Now, we know that the Five-Star Movement swept the south, especially the single-member districts. That would imply that, despite the Five Stars’ anti-immigration sentiment, their vote is more predicated on their economic or anti-elite appeal. In other words, they lack the demand-side profile of a radical-right populist party.
Am I on the right track here?
Where is the evidence that the vast majority of illegal immigrants in Italy (or Greece, Germany and elsewhere in the EU bloc) are one, willing to work and two, have any of the skills necessary to fill any of the so called skill gaps in any of these countries.
I didn’t notice any scientists, teachers, doctors etc. amongst any of the people living rough in Calais trying to get into the UK.
The only useful sort of immigration is whereby it is managed, i.e. only allowing in those who will be of immediate value to the country (countries) concerned.
They may not have the specific skills European labor markets seek, but they have the drive to uproot themselves and undertake long, dangerous journeys to maximize their standards of living. Some might call them “entrepreneurial.”
I did not say that Japan has solved the problem but that automata might solve it. Why is this bonkers, exactly?
I also said,”The other possibility is to bring in immigrants on a contract basis and for them to go home when their contract is over. This is the basis on which foreigners work in the Gulf states and many countries around the world.”
Two constructive suggestions.
Ben Margulies – I would hardly call those who seek to improve their standards of living at the expense of a society they have never contributed to and never will “entrepreneurial.”.