Post by Alessandro Spena. Alessandro is Professor of Criminal Law at the University of Palermo. Alessandro’s research interests include moral and political foundations/limits of the criminal law (i.e., crimmigration; harm principle; sovereignty and the public element of crime; international criminal law); criminal law theory; corruption crimes; and intrafamily crimes.

The political vacuum in which the new Italian government has struggled in its first month of life has been largely filled by the obsessive media presence of the Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini. Most of this verbal hyperactivity has been focused on immigration, with the minister maintaining a strong unwelcoming stance, in perfect harmony with his campaign (and, more generally, in perfect harmony with the stance traditionally held by his party, the Lega Nord [i.e., northern League]. Ιt is worth noting that a few years ago the name of the party was shortened  to Lega; however, its xenophobic and exclusionary drive, which was previously expressed by the word ‘Nord’ [aggressively opposed to the ‘South’ of Italy], has not vanished altogether; rather, it has shifted its crucial focus from southern Italian and immigrant populations to immigrants alone. Against this context, Salvini conceives his role in an exclusionary way, premised on the idea that care for the ‘internal’ affairs (i.e., security) of Italian citizens depends, primarily, on the exclusion of ‘external’ intruders. This goes in line with a far-right view that prioritizes ‘order’ over ‘integration’, conceives ‘order’ as a synonym for ‘cleansing’, and interprets ‘cleansing’ in basically ‘ethnic’ terms.

Skilfully supported by his consultants, Salvini spreads the great bulk of his messages through social media. He has an informal approach to political communication, even in more conventional situations, such as TV interviews, electoral rallies or speeches in Parliament. As a result, he is not perceived by the general public as one of the same old politicians, hiding in the corridors of power and wrapping themselves in politeness, but as ‘one of us’, one of the people, a young guy who speaks frankly for himself. Part and parcel of this calculated openness is the programmatic refusal of political correctness, seen as an expression of abstractness and inauthenticity, while people need politicians to be concrete and straight: an example thereof is the bold use of the word ‘clandestines’ to refer to persons who are generally accepted as ‘irregular foreigners.’

‘Informality’, however, also characterizes the contents of his messages: the minister’s approach is curt not only in form but also in substance, his main aim being a rhetorical effect (a like, a retweet, an applause: people’s approval, no matter how), even to the detriment of factual accuracy. The gist of his speeches is a confused and misleading account of immigration, which however, thanks to its being simplistic and without trimmings, gives the impression that the minister thinks clearly and knows what he wants.

Some examples will help make the point clearer.

One of Salvini’s first proclamations after he was appointed as a minister was that ‘Good times have finished [la pacchia è finita] for clandestine immigrants’. It was followed a few days later by an even stronger one: ‘Clandestines should bear in mind that in Italy for them good times have absolutely finished, absolutely finished [la pacchia è stra-finita, stra-finita]: they have lived off their neighbours for too long’. What does this mean? Probably nothing; nothing precise and verifiable, at least. Who could these ‘clandestines’ be to whom Salvini is referring as having ‘good times’ in Italy and ‘living off Italian citizens’? Are they those destitute people who beg for money on the streets? Are they those foreigners exploited in the workforce? Are they those who moonlight as cleaning ladies for respectable ‘Italian citizens’? Or are they those who, for three/four euros per hour, for twelve hours a day, run themselves into the ground picking tomatoes for Italian bosses? Evidently, these lives can hardly be described as ‘good times.’ In any event, these people – being undocumented foreigners – do not receive any stipend from the Italian government, which instead spends a lot of money (a great bulk of which comes from the EU) to run the bureaucratic machinery aimed at identifying them, detaining them and expelling them.

Salvini’s approximation is merely a way of shooting into the crowd, aware of the inflammatory effect stemming from depicting ‘unwanted foreigners’ as ‘parasites.’ In the last few days, media have reported some episodes of intolerance towards foreigners. While they may not be directly related to the Minister’s statements, as unfortunately, episodes like these have been happening in Italy for years, Salvini’s words do not seem to be appeasing the public. On the contrary, they risk blessing abominable attitudes with an institutional endorsement, which may sound as a form of legitimation.

Another of his proclamations is revealing of his approximate conception of immigration and foreignness. He has announced a census of Roma people living in Italy, which per se can be nothing but a quip aimed at gaining easy approval from prejudiced people, since taking a census based on ethnicity is prohibited by both the Constitution and the ECHR. The most telling aspect of this proposal, however, lies with its envisaged consequences: while for Roma individuals who will turn out to be non-citizens, the minister threatens with expulsion, Roma people who will instead turn out to be Italian citizens ‘unfortunately,’ – says the minister – ‘you need to keep them.’ Besides its overtly racist tone, the latter statement highlights the overall Salvinian view of migration and the acute meaning of his ‘fight against clandestines’. When the minister proclaims ‘Italians first!’, he does not have in mind a formal legal notion of citizenship, but an ethnically oriented one, from which Roma (and Sinti) people are excluded, whatever their formal position before the law.

A second polemic target of Salvini’s ‘media activism’ are NGOs rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean sea. In his interpretation, these rescue operations underlie (what he and his colleague, deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, dub as) a ‘business of immigration’, from which NGOs gain (unspecified) profits. It is not clear, however, what the foundation of this argument is. Neither he nor his political allies give any examples of a criminal association between smugglers and NGOs aimed at splitting the money paid by the migrants for their journey. Their argument seems to be, instead, that, with their presence at sea, the NGO ships both encourage migrants to embark and facilitate the smugglers’ job. It remains unclear, what kind of ‘profit’ they may be pursuing that can justify labelling their activity as ‘immigration business’ though. As it has been established, however, soundness of argument is not Salvini’s primary concern. Instead, he seems much more interested in the emotional and media repercussions of his statements. Charging NGOs with greed weakens their credibility. In this way, Salvini easily gains people’s support when he declares he is going to close Italian ports to NGO ships carrying migrants (which, in fact, he has done by launching a hashtag) or when he enters into a wrestling match with Malta for not allowing the ship ‘Aquarius’ – carrying 629 migrants rescued from a shipwreck – to dock in Italy.

To some extent at least, the Salvinian media campaign has had the beneficial effect of lifting the veil on a fundamental inconsistency underlying Italian (and European) migration policies: while, on the one hand, these policies emphasize the irregular foreigners’ expulsion as their crucial aim; on the other hand, they also claim that such an aim should be pursued by treating foreigners ‘in a humane and dignified manner with respect for their fundamental rights’ (see Directive 2008/115/EC). Yet, these two approaches are irreconcilable: expelling/excluding certain categories of persons who do not qualify as legal migrants, mostly because of their countries of origin or because of their economic conditions, cannot be done while treating them ‘in a humane and dignified manner.’ In his crude way, then, Salvini suggests that we (Italians and Europeans) are at a crossroads. Either we undertake an authoritarian, state-centred approach that is straightforwardly aimed at the exclusion of unwanted foreigners, shorn of humanitarian proclamations; or, we pursue full hospitality, integrating new arrivals in the social and economic EU fabric. 

In what direction are we going? It is hard to say. However, should we choose the way traced by Salvini (as well as by Orbán, Kurz, and others), which at the moment is a concrete possibility, we must also be ready to draw into question some fundamental principles (equality and non-discrimination for ethnic reasons, among others), which, until just a few years ago, we considered to be (or at least we said we believed them to be) inalienable.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Spena, A. (2018) Where Are We Going? Italy (And Europe) at the Crossroads between Xenophobia and Hospitality. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2018/07/where-are-we (Accessed [date]).