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The Fate of the EU Migrant Crisis Lies in the Italian Elections

The EU migrant crisis, now entering its third year, faces critical challenges in the wake of the Italian Elections. Contributor Tawnni Castaño de la Cuesta discusses the impact the March 4th elections will have on the critical needs of migrants entering the European Union.


The year 2015 marked what is now known as the “EU migrant crisis.” EU member states experienced a large influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa. The influx sparked divisions between EU member states as they struggled to cope. A slow response from the EU left entry countries, such as Italy, and to some lesser extent transit countries, such as Poland, with thousands of migrants to control. The immense influx of migrants combined with the divisions and confusion of EU member states also led to public panic. Many right-wing and populist parties used this as an opportunity to take the stage. They exploited the migrant crisis to further fuel the alarmist rhetoric, playing into their politics of Islamophobia, nationalism, xenophobia, and Euroscepticism.

Indeed, over the past three years, right-wing political parties have gained tremendous support in the EU. The Alternative für Deutschland became the third largest party in Germany during the 2017 elections, a party that was not previously represented in the German parliament. Poland currently has a far-right government following the Law and Justice Party’s win in the elections in 2015. Similarly, in Austria, the Freedom Party is now part of the coalition government as a result of the 2017 election. France too experienced a rise in right-wing support, as the National Front made it to the final round of elections in 2017. Evidently, right-wing support has gained a significant foothold within the EU.

Italy is no exception, having experienced a rise in right-wing support since the beginning of the migrant crisis. As an entry state for migrants, a right-wing Italy could exacerbate the divisions within the EU, work against the current migrant policy, and worsen the fate of migrants entering Italy. The future of the EU and the plight of migrants rely on Italy’s parliamentary elections on March 4, 2018.

According to Italian law, 40 percent of votes are needed to form a government. There are three main players in the upcoming Italian election: the centre-right coalition (formed by Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the right-wing parties, The League, and The Post-Fascist Brothers of Italy); the Democratic Party’s centre-left coalition; and the populist Five Star Movement. The latest polls estimate that Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition has 37 percent of the votes, the Democratic Party’s coalition has  27 percent of votes, and the Five Star Movement also has 27 percent of votes. The centre-right coalition is in the lead, only 3 percent away from reaching the 40 percent vote threshold. These polls are problematic as a right-wing government would most likely continue and even increase Italy’s anti-immigration efforts.

Throughout the migrant crisis, Italy has actively tried to keep migrants from entering the country due to the EU’s current policy of processing migrants for asylum in the country of arrival. Further, Italy made a deal with Libya that essentially “outsourced” its responsibility to take in migrants, causing many to remain in Libyan detention camps where they face systematic abuse. Italy is seemingly working against the EU’s current migrant policy. Moreover, from the outset of this crisis, violence against migrants has been increasing in Italy, especially in the face of the right-wing tinted elections. If the centre-right coalition wins the election, violence against migrants is likely to increase as extremist far-right supporters may perceive the election win as a source of legitimacy.

If the centre-right coalition wins, there are two potential candidates who may become Italy’s next prime minister. Who it will be depends on either Forza Italia or The League having the most votes within the coalition. Even though Berlusconi is the leader of Forza Italia, he is banned from taking office following his conviction for tax fraud in 2013. Berlusconi recently announced Antonio Tajani as his choice for Prime Minister. Tajani is currently the President of the European Parliament and were he to become prime minster, he will likely leave his current post. It would also mean that Italy would remain supportive of future EU membership, as Tajani is an EU supporter. Even so, Tajani would continue to intensify Italy’s anti-immigration efforts, as he too supports the idea of preventing migrants’ entry into Italy.

If the League receives more votes than Forza Italia, Matteo Salvini may become Italy’s next prime minister. This has severe consequences as yet another far-right politician may represent another EU member state in the European Council. The European Council is responsible for designing the general political direction and priorities of the European Union. A right-wing foothold in the European Council will introduce Islamophobia, nationalism, xenophobia, and Euroscepticism, which are core ideas of far-right movements. These sentiments will consequently contribute to divisions within the EU, going against the core ideals of the EU and the “ever closer union” that the EU aims to achieve. The EU-Russia approach could be one of the topics discussed in the European Council that could intensify divisions. Both Berlusconi and Salvini have close ties with Vladimir Putin, which puts pressure on the EU’s unity regarding the EU-Russia approach. The union perceives Russia as a potential threat to security and regularly sanctions Russia. Regardless, both the EU and Russia are interdependent on issues such as energy and trade. Their relationship is a complex one, which could become even more fragile if Italy became sympathetic towards Russia.

The stability of the EU may be put to the test as Salvini is a major supporter of Italy’s separation from the EU. Italy is one of the EU’s largest economies, causing the EU to take a serious financial hit if Italy ever chooses to leave. Finally, Italy’s separation from the EU may potentially lead to a domino effect, or the fear thereof, which may further endanger the future of the union. If Tajani were to become prime minister, the EU would remain more stable, as Tajani is an EU supporter unlike Salvini. Nevertheless, both Tajani and Salvini will likely continue and increase Italy’s anti-immigration efforts. Therefore, the Italian election on March 4, 2018 is not only important in determining the fate of migrants seeking to enter the EU but also vital to the future of the EU as a whole.

Tawnni Castaño de la Cuesta is an Assessment and Feedback Officer at the University of Birmingham. She has previously worked at the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security as well as the Human Rights Advocacy Center. Tawnni has a Bachelor’s degree in Global Justice from Leiden University College, The Hague and is currently pursuing a law degree at the University of Birmingham. 

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.


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