Sunday

17th Jan 2021

Opinion

Italy: Crime falls, but populists play on fear

  • Rome: Uncertain times call for delicate EU diplomacy (Photo: Giampaolo Macorig)

While fear about crime and immigration runs high in Italy, crime rates and the number of new arrivals are actually falling.

Italy's nationalist right wing is tapping into this unease, but what are the chances of shifting public opinion back towards the facts?

Read and decide

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There is a paradox in Italy: illegal immigration and crime are increasingly prominent in the political discourse, even though they are declining.

The latest report by the Bertelsmann Stiftung, a German foundation, on how internal security policy protects its citizens against crime, shows how safe living conditions actually increased slightly between 2014 and 2018.

Italy's homicide rate is, according to the report, lower than that of the UK or Germany.

In stark contrast, public perception of insecurity is running high: for example, some eight out of 10 Italians said in one poll that crime worsened in 2018.

Even though the number of illegal immigrants arriving by sea declined significantly between 2017 and 2018, falling from 119,000 to 23,400, the League party has profited from linking the topic of migration to the feeling of insecurity.

It has thrived since coming to office of party leader Matteo Salvini as interior minister.

The party has won several local elections and finished first in the May European elections, receiving 34.33 percent of the vote.

The centre-left Democratic Party won 22.69 percent while the Five-Stars collapsed to a mere 17.07 percent.

Salvini's formula of opposing illegal immigration, cracking down on those perceived to be facilitating illegal immigration (notably NGOs, most prominently with the arrest of Carola Rackete, the German captain of a ship rescuing migrants), and being tough on migration related crime appears to have paid off.

Political dividends

Italians seem to be mainly concerned with economic and migratory issues today.

According to a February-March 2019 poll by the European Commission, Italians considered the following issues to be equally important topics for the EU elections: immigration, the economy, and youth unemployment.

One poll found two thirds of Italians saying lawmakers should deal with economy and development, and only one quarter mentioning immigration and crime.

Paradoxically, the Lega seems to have benefitted more from focusing on immigration than the 5 Star Movement (5MS) party, its former coalition partner, has done from focusing on the economy.

Both the Lega and 5MS have loudly opposed the EU's demands for more balanced budgets, but it appears only the nationalists have won politically with this confrontational approach.

5MS, which focused on economic promises with a basic income and a reduction of youth unemployment, looks to have lost credibility.

A tough migratory policy seems to be easier to implement than a competent economic one.

There are no obvious ways of fighting the rising nationalist and populist wave in Italy, although it is likely to subside with time.

The previous Social Democratic governments also confronted EU austerity and eventually cracked down on illegal immigration, suggesting that the current conflict between Rome and Brussels is not fleeting but structural, reflecting differences in opinion and interest between European nation-states.

The populist government, of course, has intensified the matter.

Future crises

Illustrating the unpredictability of Italian politics, Salvini, who is also Italy's deputy prime minister, has now forced for a snap election.

His move followed months of infighting and animosity between the coalition partners.

If an election were held today, the League, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, and the nationalist Brothers of Italy parties would receive an absolute majority.

But a deal between the socialist and 5MS to form a new government without Salvini has put the elections in doubt.

Given these uncertain times, now, more than ever, dialogue will be necessary if public policy is to be based on facts rather than impressions.

Hard thinking and practical support on the part of European partners on how to help Italy in the face of future migrant crises, which are likely given Africa's rapid population growth and the violent instability of the Middle East and North Africa.

This would also help forestall further political radicalisation.

Meanwhile, Italy's economic situation could be alleviated through a combination of domestic reform and the consolidation of a more coherent eurozone.

But if confrontations gain pace between Brussels and Rome, let alone with Berlin and Paris, they will impede much-needed stability within the eurozone bloc, worsening the outlook for Italy and elsewhere.

Author bio

Craig Willy is a Brussels-based EU affairs writer. He has written reports for the Bertelsmann Stiftung and has done media analysis for the European Commission.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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