Anti-immigrant far right ignores Italy’s dependence on foreign labour

Italy's far right has put anti-immigrant rhetoric at the heart of its campaign for the September 25 election, despite the fact the eurozone's third largest economy would freeze up without overseas labour.

League party leader Matteo Salvini speaks on stage on September 18, 2022 in Pontida, northern Italy, ahead of the September 25 general election.
League party leader Matteo Salvini speaks on stage on September 18, 2022 in Pontida, northern Italy, ahead of the September 25 general election. Photo by Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP

Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni and the League’s Matteo Salvini have pursued a nationalist “Italians First” agenda that looks set to propel them to power, with pledges to end mass migration a central part of their programme.

One of Salvini’s first campaign stops was to the tiny island of Lampedusa, the landing point for many of the tens of thousands of migrants who reach Italian shores each year from North Africa. He said Lampedusa could not become “Europe’s refugee camp”.

READ ALSO: Italy’s Salvini praises right-wing parties’ success in Swedish election

“Only those with permission should enter Italy,” he told a mass gathering of his League party on Sunday.

Meloni has insisted she differentiates between people fleeing conflict and irregular economic migrants.

But she drew criticism last month for reposting a video of a woman being raped, allegedly by an asylum seeker in an Italian town, which was later taken down for violating rules on social media networks.

“Unfortunately our political debate associates immigrants with landings… creating the idea of huge flows… while the actual number of immigrants has been stable for a decade in Italy,” said Maurizio Ambrosini, a sociologist at the University of Milan.

READ ALSO: How would victory for Italy’s far right impact foreigners’ lives?

The political leaders’ views are in line with that of many Italians.

Seventy-seven percent of the population say immigration levels are “too high”, according to a YouGov survey last December for several newspapers across Europe – 10 points above the European Union average.

Their biggest concern about immigration was the fear of a rise in crime.

This was cited by some 53 percent of the Italians surveyed, rising to 76 percent of Brothers of Italy voters and 67 percent of League voters.

By contrast, the centre-left Democratic Party and the centre “see immigrants as a resource for the Italian economy”, said Ambrosini.

READ ALSO: ‘I plan to leave’: Foreigners in Italy fear for their futures if far right wins election

But they often have difficulty explaining this to their voters “because it is an unpopular subject, and it is easier to have a debate about exclusion and hostility, which are immediately understandable”.

Overall, surveys suggest immigration is less of a concern for Italians than the rampant inflation squeezing already stagnant wages.

Campaign slogans

Yet migrants are also a potential lifeline for Italy, which could lose more than 20 percent of its population in the next 50 years due to a declining birth rate, according to official figures.

This decline is accompanied by a general ageing of the population.

In a report last year, the ISTAT national statistics agency warned of the “consequences (of this trend) for the labour market” and “the pressure the country will have to face” to finance its pensions and health system.

READ ALSO: Can Ukrainian refugees save Italy’s ‘dying’ hill towns from extinction?

The labour market is already heavily dependent on immigration, notably for low-skilled jobs in agriculture, construction, home help and hospitality.

Italy’s estimated 2.5 million legal immigrants account for more than 10 percent of the workforce.

This dependence was laid bare during the coronavirus pandemic, when – with the risk of crops rotting in the fields – agricultural producers chartered plans to bring in seasonal workers from Romania and Morocco.

At the time, one grower in the north of Italy, Martin Foradori Hofstatter, explained to AFP: “In theory, I could have found workers here in Italy but now Italians do not want to work in the fields or the vineyards.”

On Sunday, Salvini offered his solution to stop the emptying of many Italian villages: “We don’t need migrants to repopulate villages. Let’s make Italians pay less tax and you’ll see how they repopulate these small places.”

But Ambrosini cautioned, “Complex themes… don’t lend themselves to simple election campaign slogans.”

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Doubts rise over ‘loose cannon’ Salvini after Italy’s election

Italian anti-immigrant leader Matteo Salvini was disappointed on Monday at his party's result in general elections but pledged to work with Giorgia Meloni, who triumphed, to form a government.

Doubts rise over 'loose cannon' Salvini after Italy's election

Whether Salvini would keep his word – or survive politically long enough to do so – was not clear, after his anti-immigrant League party dropped below the 10 percent threshold at Sunday’s vote.

This was a sharp decrease after the party swept to office with 17 percent of the vote in 2018 – since when it has been eclipsed by Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy.

EXPLAINED: What will a far-right government mean for Italy?

A glum Salvini, who has clashed with Meloni on a range of policies, not least her stance on Russia and the war in Ukraine, told reporters that winning just nine percent had been a blow.

It was “not a number I wanted or worked for”, he said.

Salvini added that he had “gone to bed fairly pissed off but woke up ready to go” and was now “looking on the bright side”.

Meloni “was good. We will work together for a long time”, he promised.

Leader of Italy's liberal-conservative party Forza Italia, Silvio Berlusconi, leader of Italy's conservative party Brothers of Italy, Giorgia Meloni and leader of Italy's far-right League party, Matteo Salvini acknowledge supporters at the end of a joint rally against the government on October 19, 2019 in Rome.

Italy’s right-wing coalition, consisting of Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, Salvini’s League and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, has promised to slash taxes and put ‘Italians first’. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

The League may now have to battle to ensure its priorities are not sidelined in Meloni’s government programme, analysts said.

And while ex-interior minister Salvini has repeatedly said he wants his former job back, it is looking increasingly unlikely to happen.

“It won’t be an easy relationship. It’s likely that (Salvini) will be given a more marginal role in the government than he wants,” Sofia Ventura, political sciences professor at Bologna University, told the foreign press association in Rome.

“The result… throws into question Matteo Salvini’s leadership” of his own party, she said, adding that there were those within the League who thought they would be better off without the “loose cannon”.

READ ALSO: Meloni, Salvini, Berlusconi: The key figures in Italy’s likely new government

He said Meloni had benefited from being the only leader to stay outside the coalition formed by Prime Minister Mario Draghi in February 2021.

For the League, being part of that administration “was not easy”, he said, but insisted “I would do it again.”

‘Dangerous when cornered’

Meloni secured around 26 percent of the vote in Sunday’s poll, putting her on course to become the first woman to serve as Italian prime minister.

She campaigned as part of a coalition including Salvini’s League and ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, which won around eight percent.

Italian politics is notoriously unstable, with nearly 70 governments since 1946, and there were concerns disagreements with Salvini may precipitate a fresh crisis.

Lorenzo Pregliasco, co-founder of the YouTrend polling site, said Italian party leaders proved “dangerous” when they felt cornered.

The League head “might not create any problems in the short term” but “watch out for the Salvini factor, if he survives politically as a leader”.

Salvini however said that after years of unwieldy coalitions, Italy finally had “a government chosen by its citizens, with a clear majority” in both houses of parliament.

And he hoped it could “go for at least five years straight, without changes, without upheavals, focusing on things to do”.