Europe Tries to Seize Momentum for a New Deal on Migration

ROME — At the height of the migration crisis, Italy called on the European Union to keep its promise and help shoulder the burden of the hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers landing on the Continent’s southern Mediterranean border.

Instead, Italy felt the bloc’s cold shoulder, and the ensuing popular frustration helped fuel the rise of the anti-immigrant nationalist Matteo Salvini, who virtually sealed ports to ships carrying rescued migrants before his political overreach led to his unexpected exit as interior minister this summer.

With Mr. Salvini gone, centrist European leaders see a chance to apply the lessons of the past and give fresh momentum to efforts to overhaul the bloc’s immigration system.

On Monday, interior ministers from France, Germany, Italy, Malta and Finland, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Council, struck a temporary deal to redistribute migrants on aid ships to some member states immediately following their rescue.

“Italy is no longer alone,” Italy’s new interior minister, Luciana Lamorgese, told reporters on Monday afternoon.

The agreement in Malta could be expanded to more countries when it is presented on Oct. 8 to interior ministers from all European Union countries.

ImageThe anti-immigrant politician Matteo Salvini posed for pictures with supporters in northern Italy this month.
CreditLuca Bruno/Associated Press

“They see a window of opportunity in Italy, because there’s a government that isn’t screaming about migrants and they don’t know how long this government will last,” said Anna Triandafyllidou, a professor of immigration policies at Ryerson University in Toronto.

“It’s very important that Salvini is out,” she added.

The Malta meeting essentially sought a formal workaround to existing European Union treaties, which put heavy burdens on front-line countries like Greece, Italy and Malta by requiring that asylum seekers to stay where they arrive.

In part for that reason, Mr. Salvini introduced a tough security decree, still in place, imposing steep fines, arrests and confiscations on aid vessels that enter Italy without permission.

Italy hopes the new agreement will avoid the case-by-case negotiations which have followed standoffs between Italy and aid ships that have left the migrants they carry stranded precariously at sea for days or weeks.

In the days before the meeting, Italy advocated that migrants should no longer automatically disembark at the nearest safe port — almost always Greece, Italy or Malta — but that a rotation of European Union member states open their ports as well.

The sorting would be carried out on the ships that would bring them to a designated port in Italy. The interior ministers agreed to that principle in Malta on Monday.

CreditRenata Brito/Associated Press

“I deeply believe the response to the subject of immigration is not in looking inward or in nationalist provocations but in building effective European solutions,” President Emmanuel Macron of France said in a meeting with the new Italian government in Rome last week.

Italy is particularly eager to seize the momentum. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who as leader of the previous government had signed off Mr. Salvini’s hard-line legislation and tolerated his invective, has sought to reposition himself, and Italy, back in the European fold.

The new Italian government, a tentative alliance between the center-left Democratic Party and the populist Five Star Movement, has quickly proved itself more pro-Europe — and more acceptable to Brussels — than the former government of Five Star and Mr. Salvini’s hard-right League party.

After Monday’s meeting, Mr. Conte hailed the agreement as a positive step and sought to assure Italians that it would in no way draw more migrants into the Mediterranean, as critics of the deal have argued.

In meeting with Mr. Macron last week, Mr. Conte said the two leaders had discussed “an efficient system to disembark, redistribute, and repatriate migrants.”

Then, in a not-so-veiled criticism of Mr. Salvini, he added, “We must make sure the issue of migration isn’t left to those that use it as a permanent topic for their propaganda.”

CreditAngelo Carconi/EPA, via Shutterstock

Mr. Conte has also called for “serious penalties” against member states that refuse to take part in the burden sharing.

But in seeking to take the migration issue off the populist table, some critics say the deal will merely provide nationalist leaders in Hungary and Poland, as well as far-right opposition parties in France and Germany, with more of an opportunity to stir more outrage over what they depict as migrant invasions.

Minutes after the deal was annouced Monday, Mr. Salvini released a statement saying that while it was right to welcome “the few who really flee war, opening the Italian ports to everyone in the world is madness.”

The deal to spread migrants around the Continent would only stoke resentment, said Francesco Borgonovo, a journalist at the right-wing Italian publication La Verità.

This week, La Verità will release an anti-migration comic book by Mr. Borgonovo, the cover of which features an African man holding a knife dripping blood. Subtitled, “An Immigration Story,” it tells the tale of the son of a voodoo priestess who becomes a child soldier before migrating to Italy, where he brutally murders his do-gooder patron and a priest.

Mr. Borgonovo said that Mr. Salvini had introduced realism into the European debate about migration by forcing the issue with his port closures. Even if he was absent, Mr. Salvini was clearly driving the European agenda and would loom over the Malta meeting, Mr. Borgonovo added.

CreditRenata Brito/Associated Press

‘‘He’s the nationalist elephant in the room,” he said.

Mr. Salvini and his supporters are already arguing that with the hard-right populist out of power, migration is picking up.

According to data from the interior ministry, September was the first month this year during which the number of migrants surpassed the number of arrivals compared with the same month in the previous year. And that is with several aid ships still impounded under Mr. Salvini’s tough security law.

La Repubblica, a left-leaning daily in Italy, reported more than 300 recent “ghost landings” — occasions in which migrants reach the country’s ports on their own — in less than a week.

In the Aegean Sea, the increase is even sharper. In August, Greece registered its busiest month of migrant arrivals in more than three years.

The European Union has also sought to keep migrants from coming to the Continent by striking deals with Libyan tribal leaders and by setting up much-criticized processing centers in Niger and most recently, in Rwanda.

Politicians across the political spectrum argue that the ultimate answer to the issue of migration lies in development in Africa. But their ideological differences break into the open when the migrants arrive on European shores.

Momentum for a potential deal got a lift this month when the Ocean Viking, an aid ship operated in the Mediterranean Sea by Doctors Without Borders, rescued 82 migrants.

After six days at sea waiting for a safe port, France and Germany volunteered to take a share of the migrants, which prompted Italy to allow the ship to disembark on the island of Lampedusa.

Italy kept 24 migrants, France and Germany took in 24 each, and others went to Luxembourg and Portugal. The Ocean Viking then rescued 182 more migrants and Italy again granted them a safe port, this time in Messina, Sicily.

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