What does it mean to be a 'New Italian'? The question facing a divided Italy

Catherine Edwards
Catherine Edwards - [email protected]
What does it mean to be a 'New Italian'? The question facing a divided Italy
People demonstrate in favour of reforming Italy's citizenship law. File photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

Italy and its parliament are divided over the question of whether children born in the country but of foreign parents should be given automatic citizenship - a vote which is a litmus test for how the country will deal with its changing demographics, an expert tells The Local.


The parliamentary vote on the so-called 'ius soli' (right of soil) law was this week postponed until later in the year.

Debate over the issue has grown heated, leading to physical confrontation when Education Minister Valeria Fedeli was allegedly pushed into a table by Northern League senators, while far-right protesters clashed with police outside the chamber.

It's a hot-button issue for a number of reasons.

For one thing, the country's major parties are gearing up for an election scheduled for early next year at the latest, and as things stand, none look set to get a majority.

The debate also comes as Italy is put under increasing pressure by the migration crisis that has brought thousands of people to its southern shores.

While the ius soli bill is not directly linked to these new arrivals - it would only grant citizenship to those born in Italy and who have gone through at least five years of Italian schooling - politicians on the right have seized the chance to link the two issues. Matteo Salvini who leads the anti-immigration Northern League party called the postponement of the vote a victory for his party, tweeting "stop the invasion".

Italy's far-right Northern League is cosying up to Russia
Northern League leader Matteo Salvini. Photo: AFP

But the underlying question here isn't how to deal with the latest wave of migration or even how best to integrate those who have arrived in Italy, often from very different cultures - some argue that offering citizenship would help achieve this by avoiding alienation and a sense of 'otherness'.

While these are problems Italy must deal with, the question of ius soli relates to a different group: the 'New Italians', or those who were born in and grew up in Italy but have foreign parents.

'These people didn't migrate - so how can they be second generation migrants?'

Dr Marco Antonsich, a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the UK's Loughborough University, has carried out extensive research into demographic change in Italy and so-called second-generation migrants in particular.

He uses the term 'New Italians' to refer to those born in Italy to foreign parents, but adds some caveats.

"The term ‘new’ makes a distinction, instilling a difference where there shouldn’t be one and possibly suggesting they are not ‘real’ Italians. 'Second generation' is not a proper term either - these people didn’t migrate, so how can they be classed as second generation migrants?" Antonsich tells The Local.

Italians debate whether Italy-born children of migrants should get citizenship
Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

People belonging to this group usually speak fluent Italian as well as a second language at home; they belong completely to two different cultures. While there are distinct groups of certain nationalities or religions, including Moroccans, Chinese, Sikhs, and Muslims, Antonsich stresses that Italy is one of the countries home to the highest number of different nationalities, and organizations set up for New Italians cover all of these smaller groups.

At the moment, 'New Italians' are eligible to apply for citizenship once they turn 18, but this process takes around two years, and costs a significant sum of money. 

They are constantly reminded of their 'difference' through small, administrative tasks their native-born peers are able to do without thinking. For example, taking part in the Erasmus exchange programme, travelling overseas, or voting in Italian elections.

Others want to be able to represent the country they see as their own by standing for office or competing in international sporting events; one 17-year-old boxer wrote to the Italian president last year to ask for citizenship so she could represent Italy.

Politics of fear

For Antonsich, the ius soli law is the major litmus test for politicians to show how they will deal with the country's changing demographics - something he feels they have thus far failed to do.

"There's a sense of not having a future, common to all young Italians but especially affecting the New Italians," he says, noting that significant numbers of New Italians emigrate away from the country.

When Cecile Kyenge, Italy's former Integration Minister who campaigned for a change to the citizenship law, first came into power, around 67 percent of Italians were in favour of giving citizenship to this group, but a recent Corriere survey showed the majority (54 percent) are now against the move. In a survey in Rome-based Il Messaggero last week, that number had fallen to below a third of those questioned (32.3 percent).

Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

Antonsich sees the migration and economic crises as major reasons for the change. "They have impacted massively on the sense of who we are. We’ve seen an increased sense of a need to protect the Italian culture, heritage, and individual wealth - it creates division, and children of migrants carry that difference in their own bodies," he explains.

"At the moment, everyone is afraid: of more people coming here, of globalization, of perceived security threats, and the political machine responds to that fear," he said.

The past few years have seen a surge in support for the far-right Northern League, which in 2013 received just over four percent of votes in the general election. Now, the party is polling at around 15 percent nationally.

And the left-wing parties are moving further right when it comes to migration policy. Democratic Party leader Matteo Renzi has said Italy should only take in a "fixed number" of migrants, and this trend is not specific to Italy, with populism and defensive politics strong across many other parts of the world. 

'At the moment, the signs aren't good'

However, Antonsich argues that this kind of rhetoric ignores the changing reality in Italy.

"Societies are becoming more diverse and will become even more so. Globalization is not the exception, it is absolutely structural to the economy," he says. In Italy, several industries, including agriculture and the production of its prize products from Parmesan cheese to wine, rely heavily on immigration and New Italians.

"Longer term, the distinction between majority and minority will fade away. The question is, what sense of collective will emerge, and how will politicians be able to follow and respond to this big demographic challenge? At the moment, frankly the signs aren’t good. Italy is not an exception here; no country has managed this totally successfully."

In fact, in Switzerland last week, a 25-year-old woman who was born in Switzerland, has lived there her whole life, works locally in a technical profession, speaks fluent Swiss German and is engaged to a Swiss, had her citizenship application turned down.

The reason was that authorities ruled she was "not sufficiently integrated" after answering 70 questions set to determine her 'Swissness', including whether she liked hiking.

The ruling has prompted calls for a rethink of how eligibility for Swiss citizenship is decided, and will have given food for thought across the border in Italy as to the difficulty of setting criteria for nationality in a globalized world. How can those who were born in and grew up in a country be told they 'are not integrated', and is the government setting double standards for people based on their parents' home countries?

As to whether Italy will be able to reach a solution to the issue, Antonsich is not hopeful it will happen fast. "The kind of politics I'm seeing right now makes me very pessimistic," he says. "There are clear tensions on the political level and the everyday level in society, and it usually takes a long time for society to evolve."



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