Immigration (and Russia) were at the heart of Giuseppe Conte’s first address as prime minister on Tuesday, in which he called on Europe to revise its immigration policies to offer a more coordinated European response, rather than placing the handling of illegal arrivals on the first country where immigrants land, a system that’s left Italy struggling to contend with 500,000 arrivals in recent years. “The burden should have been shared,” Conte said. (His government is now formally installed, having passed confidence votes in the Senate and Lower House this week.)
In his speech to the Senate, Conte said Italy wanted clearer standards for determining refugee status and processing new arrivals, “to guarantee their rights more efficiently and not to leave them in uncertainty.” He added that he’d raised that in a conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and been heartened by her response, which she gave in an interview last weekend with a German newspaper, saying she thought the European Union should work toward common standards for asylum seekers. (The interview was a belated response to proposals advanced by French President Emmanuel Macron.)
Faced with the existential threat of right-wing parties gaining momentum—Steve Bannon has been touring Europe in a flurry of alt-right evangelism—maybe the European Union will begin to commit to more burden-sharing on immigration. George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist, wrote this week that the European Union should consider why a majority of Italian voters backed anti-establishment parties, noting that in 2015, France and Austria closed their borders, leaving immigrants stranded in Italy. (Soros has been accused by Hungary’s Viktor Orbán of unleashing waves of Muslim immigrants into Europe.)
But while the European Union moves slowly, resentments move quickly. In his speech to the Italian Senate, Conte said, “We aren’t racists and will never be.” That he felt the need to add this phrase says a lot about Italy’s new government.
Conte’s efforts to soften the government’s tone seemed only to underscore Salvini’s efforts to amp things up. Conte, a previously unknown law professor, will likely struggle to hold together the inherently contradictory forces inside the government because he has no independent authority and is completely beholden to Salvini and di Maio, the Five-Star Movement’s leader. Maurizio Crozza, one of Italy’s best satirists, has already skewered Conte, depicting him as the protagonist of Servant of Two Masters, a classic 18th-century play.
Liliana Segre, an 87-year-old member of the Italian Senate, received a standing ovation in the Senate Tuesday when she recounted how she had survived Auschwitz as a child, and said she would oppose a proposal that would separate Roma children from their parents if the children were found not to be attending school, while Italian families would only incur fines in similar situations. She would not abide by any “special laws,” she said, and would abstain from voting confidence in Italy’s new government. In response, Salvini told her there wouldn’t be any special laws.