Capitulating to xenophobia

The Renzi government is now competing with the far right when it comes to migrants, writes Toby Abse

Last month, it became quite clear that Matteo Renzi’s nominally centre-left Partito Democratico (PD) had abandoned any attempt during the current legislature to pass the ius soli (‘right to the soil’)- a law giving Italian-born children of immigrants citizenship on certain conditions.

The bill had been passed by the Chamber of Deputies back in October 2015 in the face of opposition from the conventional right (Lega Nord, Fratelli d’Italia, Forza Italia) and abstention by the right-populist Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S - Five Star Movement). The very fact that M5S long ago announced its intention to abstain once again if the bill reached the Senate, where an abstention counts as a negative vote, should serve as an indication of the increasing visceral racism of the Grillini. The ius soli was supposedly scheduled for discussion in the Senate in July of this year, but the PD leadership came up with some rather feeble justifications for postponing the debate until September. Its excuse was that the PD-led governing coalition has a much narrower majority in the Senate, and there is a real danger that the senators of foreign minister Angelino Alfano’s Alternativa Popolare (AP: the party formerly known as the Nuovo Centro Destra - New Centre Right) will not vote for it, at least not without a vote of confidence being called by PD prime minister Paolo Gentiloni.

Whilst there can be no certainty about any vote of confidence, and the downfall of Romano Prodi’s centre-left governments in both 1998 and 2008 as a result of failures to win such votes probably haunts the PD, it seems unlikely that the AP senators, regardless of their negative views on the ius soli, would bring the government down - it would be a case of turkeys voting for Christmas. Their original defection from Silvio Berlusconi’s parliamentary group could best be described as rats leaving what they believed to be Forza Italia’s sinking ship - underestimating, like many before them, the tycoon’s skill as a political Houdini - and they remain dependent on the PD for political survival. AP is scoring so badly in the opinion polls that its vote share in any snap election precipitated by voting down the Gentiloni government would automatically exclude it even from the Chamber of Deputies, let alone the Senate (where parties currently have to overcome a higher percentage threshold to achieve representation under Italy’s complicated variant of PR).

Moreover, while a few individual defectors amongst the AP parliamentarians have recently been welcomed back to Berlusconi’s Forza Italia - and a few more might be in the future - Alfano and his close associates have in all probability burnt their boats. In short, the PD’s emphasis on AP’s lack of enthusiasm for the ius soli is, to a large extent, a cover for its own cowardice. The only left opposition in the Senate - Sinistra Italiana1 - has made it clear that, despite its general hostility to the Gentiloni government, it would make an exception in the case of a vote of confidence over the ius soli and vote for what they regard as an anti-immigrant government in order to pass a law favouring the children of migrants. This would cancel out at least some potential AP defections in the event of any split in Alfano’s group caused by individuals imagining that Berlusconi would give them a second chance.2

In reality, the PD is clearly responding in an utterly panic-stricken manner to the opinion polls rather than making rational calculations about its chances of getting a Senate majority for the bill.


In 2014, when the PD first started to devise the ius soli, 80% of Italians said they favoured giving citizenship to the children of immigrants born in Italy. The very sudden drop in support for such a measure has only occurred in the last few months: in June it was down to 57%, and by September it had sunk to 52%. Nonetheless, there was still as big a majority amongst the Italian population in favour of this law as there was for Brexit in the UK, so it was easy for the PD to claim a popular mandate for it, if it had the political will to do so. Moreover, a clear majority of those most likely to vote for the PD backed the ius soli in the last opinion poll. Amongst voters identifying themselves as ‘left’, it has 72% support, and amongst those identifying themselves as ‘centre-left’ it has 70% support.3 However, the PD leaders seem far more concerned with their flakier, marginal voters - they seem to have carried out private polls which suggest they would lose 1.5% - 2% if they enacted the ius soli.4

The most robust response to this abject cowardice has come from former centre-left prime minister Romano Prodi: tailing the Lega and M5S will do the PD no good, he said, because people with racist inclinations will vote for the more consistently racist party. That, of course, applies not just to the abandonment of the ius soli, but also to the whole set of anti-migrant policies belatedly pursued by interior minister Marco Minniti over the last few months.

It is worth noting that PD infrastructure minister Graziano Delrio had already described the capitulation as “an act of grave fear” the day before Prodi’s comments. Delrio has some form on these matters, having already come into conflict with Minniti in July, when the hard-line and increasingly demagogic interior minister first mounted his strident attack on the NGOs - a conflict that was not purely verbal, since Delrio’s portfolio enabled him to temporarily sabotage Minniti’s disgraceful efforts to prevent the Italian navy taking on board migrants rescued by NGOs. It is worth pointing out that the humanitarian, Delrio, is a former Christian Democrat and the racist, Minniti, a former communist, so that the PD’s deep divisions over immigration cannot be reduced to a replay of the long-standing factional rivalry between former communists and former Christian Democrats5. It is no coincidence that Minniti featured in an annual publication of the neo-fascist Fratelli d’Italia, significantly entitled ‘E tempo di patrioti’ (‘The time of patriots’), at which he appeared along with his fellow ‘patriots’, the Lega’s Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni of the far-right Fratelli d’Italia.

It should be stressed that the so-called ius soli in the form in which it was passed by the lower house after some AP restrictive amendments did not automatically grant Italian citizenship to all those born in the country in the way some other state citizenship laws do. The PD had already made concessions to groups like AP, which are obsessed with illegal immigration. According to the bill, a child born in Italy of foreign parents only became an Italian citizen if the father and/or mother had had the legal right to be in Italy for at least five consecutive years. Italian citizenship was also open to a foreign child born in Italy, or arriving in Italy before their 12th birthday, if they had attended an Italian school for at least five consecutive years - what was called the ius culturae, since it rewarded youngsters for learning the Italian language and, it was assumed, an Italian way of life. Despite these limitations, it is estimated that about 800,000 children would have benefited from the law.

Even putting to one side the question of basic human rights, anybody genuinely concerned about the children of migrants turning to crime or terrorism ought to have recognised that granting such children legal equality with their Italian contemporaries and schoolmates would be far more likely to integrate them into wider society than continuing to marginalise and exclude them - something which naturally sows resentment, especially in adolescents. Such resentment in some cases can obviously take anti-social forms, even if it also leads to constructive civil rights campaigns like the Italiani senza cittadinanza (Italians without citizenship), who have been indefatigable in their struggle for a change in the law. Of course, in reality political groups like the Lega Nord, FdI and M5S, all of whom opposed the ius soli and very publicly rejoiced at the PD’s recent surrender, have no genuine desire to integrate either migrants or their children into the Italian nation, and shamelessly delight in every instance of criminality or terrorist activity by tiny minorities in a bid to demonise entire ethnic or religious groups.

The PD’s gross cowardice is not only a reflection of the negative shift in public opinion over this particular issue, but a response to increasing xenophobia in the most literal sense of that word. In September 2017, 46% of those polled agreed with the statement, “Immigrants are a danger to public order and people’s safety”. Whilst such a level of xenophobia had been exceeded in 2008, when it reached 51%, it sank to 26% in December 2012, before rising steadily over the last few years. Unsurprisingly, there is a correlation with the number of references to immigration on television news bulletins, which have been far higher in 2015-17 than in any previous years, partly because of the massive influx of migrants across the Mediterranean from Libya, once the Balkan route was closed.

Moreover, in the month of August and the first ten days of September this year, 38% of television news bulletins contained news of crimes committed by immigrants. The recent gang rape at Rimini by two young Moroccans and two young black Africans was mentioned an average of five times a day over four days - an all-time record.

It seems reasonable to suggest that the PD is absolutely terrified of the views of working class voters, and reacts in the same way as Blairite MPs from smaller towns in the north and Midlands have after Brexit - adapting to chauvinism rather than ditching the neoliberalism which has led a demoralised and atomised working class to become easy prey for racist demagogues - in the Italian case, Matteo Salvini, Giorgia Meloni and Beppe Grillo.

Needless to say, there is no correlation between levels of xenophobia and real, rather than perceived, levels of immigration. Around 11,000 migrants from across the Mediterranean landed in Italy in August 2017, less than half the July 2016 figure of more than 23,000, but the level of xenophobia has increased, not decreased, over the intervening period. There is often more xenophobia in Italy’s rural areas and small towns, where there are either no immigrants or very few immigrants, than in larger cities, where there are more of them, of course. A number of recent anti-immigrant riots in the ‘red region’ of Emilia despite the arrival of comparatively few migrants, would tend to support this argument.

Libya deal

Until this summer, Italy had stood out as, in practical terms6, one of the most welcoming of the European states in relation to refugees. Given the refusal of the ‘Visegrad four’ to accept a single refugee, the minimal quota accepted by the UK, and the extraordinary zeal with which France seeks to prevent migrants crossing the border to its east, Italy had behaved better than the majority of the EU states, and until very recently the Italian navy had performed a genuinely humanitarian role in the Mediterranean, in contrast to the anti-refugee stance of the pan-European Frontex.

However, things have changed radically in the last few months. The PD’s shift to an anti-immigrant position seems to have come at the end of June, and thus precedes its backtracking on the ius soli. Whilst a phrase in Renzi’s latest book Avanti referring to helping migrants ‘in their own home’ was very unfortunate at best, the real thrust behind the crackdown came from Minniti, probably in response to a particularly large contingent of migrants rescued from the sea over a couple of days in late June. Every allegation against the NGOs involved in rescuing migrants that had previously been made by the Lega, the FdI and M5S was taken up by the government.

The imposition of a ‘code of conduct’, which involved, amongst others, putting armed police officers on rescue boats, was unacceptable to widely-respected groups like Médicins sans Frontières, for whom it is essential to appear unaligned to any state when operating in war zones. It is quite obvious that the purpose of the new regulations was to hinder the NGOs from performing their primary objective of saving human lives, and thus to reduce the flow of migrants arriving on Italy’s shores. In other words, Minniti had really adopted the ‘Let them drown’ position of theLega, FdI and M5S, hidden behind a thin veil of pompous and hypocritical rhetoric about upholding the rule of law and combating the human traffickers.

Although opposition to the government line was relatively marginal, a ‘let them drown’ policy could only be a short-term expedient. Thus the Italian government suddenly became eager to make deals with the two main rival Libyan governments, as well as various tribal militias in the south of that country, largely motivated by a desire to keep the migrants there. The new idealisation of the Libyan coastguard - known to have maintained close links with ‘people smugglers’ in return for substantial payoffs - accompanied the official demonisation of all NGOs which failed to agree to the code of conduct. Whilst migrants from sinking boats might still be rescued from drowning, the involvement of Libyan coastguards was designed to make sure that these unfortunates were transported to Libyan camps, not Italian reception centres. A policy of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ was replacing ‘let them drown’ l


1. This largely consists of the more hard-line remnant of the parliamentarians elected as Sinistra, Ecologia e Libertà in 2013.

2. Berlusconi does not favour an early General Election, since he is still dreaming of a court judgement from Strasburg that would overturn the Italian ban on his candidacy for elected office, and his appeal will not be considered for some months. In any event, Forza Italia is only scoring about half the percentage that Berlusconi’s Polo della Libertàcould command in 2013, so loyalists stand more chance of safe seats than repentant traitors.

3. Demos poll reported in La Repubblica September 13.

4. Corriere della Sera September 14.

5. Delrio, once a close ally of Renzi, has fallen out with the PD leader over immigration, with Renzi siding with Minniti on both occasions, more blatantly now than in July.

6. Regardless of harsh laws on clandestine immigration and in part because the state is too inefficient to implement deportations of those who fail to qualify for asylum.