The events in Cologne have had an impact on the Italian domestic debate on refugees and migration, both in public opinion and in political discourse. The news from Germany came hot on the heels of the revelation that only 272 of the 40,000 refugees scheduled for relocation have been moved, something considered unacceptable and disheartening by Italy’s government.
In his New Year Message, the Head of State Sergio Mattarella praised the role played by Italy, adding that “There is a need for closer international cooperation in matters of identification and relocation of refugees. We need “common policies”, able to go beyond the emergency and to effectively respond to a dramatic reality that examines our conscience”. These words were immediately echoed by Foreign Minister Gentiloni, who said “Italy is playing its part but now it is time to give a “European” dimension to the crisis and to revise the Treaty of Dublin which is irreconcilable with the free circulation provided by Schengen. Europe has to choose between Schengen and Dublin”.
Besides calling for a more shared “European” responsibility, the Italian Government is trying to take some steps internally by trying to update its domestic legislation on migration. The bone of contention at the political level is the “the crime of illegal immigration” which is considered unnecessary and counter-productive by the Italian judiciary and which Prime Minister Renzi believes could be carefully abolished. But after the Paris attacks and events in Cologne, the abolition of the crime would allegedly favour populist forces, such as the Northern League or the Five Star Movement ahead of upcoming local elections. Indeed, the Northern League’s leader and MEP Salvini has gone so far call for a national referendum if the illegal migration crime is cancelled by what he call the “RenzAlfano” government.
This discourse over migration has led to calls for a deeper debate on integration, both nationally and at a European level. According to former foreign minister and former Commissioner Emma Bonino, Europe should launch a political discussion on integration, which should go beyond Schengen and non-Schengen diatribes and focus on rights and duties of integration, on what we have to do and what we should ask in return.
The events in Cologne have also triggered strong reactions amongst a public opinion that is more and more concerned about the terrorist threat and the perception of insecurity. Domestic Italian press has heavily focussed on the events of New Year’s Eve in Germany, helping to generate an atmosphere of xenophobic fear and speculation. Indeed, some media have tied this deplorable event exclusively to the attackers’ ethnic origins, not engaging with the issue of integration whatsoever.
However, despite increased concerns, public opinion remains convinced that Italy is on the front line in coping with the refugee crisis, though the absence of a truly European burden sharing and the failure so far of reallocation have fuelled further tensions. Many think that Italy will be left alone by the EU on management and reception of refugees. Indeed, there was consternation when the Commission launched infringement processes against Italy for failing to fulfil the obligations of Eurodac, the European system of identification through fingerprints. The EU chides Italy for having failed to fulfil European directives on the matter, while Rome says that Brussels has not kept to its agreements on the redistribution of refugees. The infringement procedure has done nothing but feeding nascent Italian resentment of the EU.
2016 has started with some already challenging issues to be discussed. At the European level as domestically. The refugee dossier will be a hot one for Rome in the coming year. Not only will it be an electoral stress test for Renzi and his coalition but also may be a cause of friction between Renzi and his European partners.
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