Naval Blockade or New Maginot Line? Questions Loom as Italy’s Meloni Grapples With Spiraling Migrant Crisis 

Italy will not become ‘Europe’s refugee camp,’ the Italian premier says, but managing the migrant flows from North Africa is getting more difficult by the day.

Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse via AP
The oresident of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and Italy's premier, Giorgia Meloni, during a joint press conference following a visit to the island of Lampedusa, Italy, September 17, 2023. Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse via AP

Pope Francis summed it up neatly but harshly when he called the Mediterranean “the world’s biggest cemetery” — but so did Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, who insists that her country will not become “Europe’s refugee camp.”  

It gets messier: The French interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, declared this week that “France will not take in migrants” from Lampedusa.

The Italian island  has been overwhelmed with as many as 10,000 immigrants who came ashore in the past week alone. Between those two different attitudes to the undeclared invasion of Europe’s aquatic underbelly there is Italy’s  Ms. Meloni, whose calls for an EU naval blockade to keep refugees at bay are gaining steam. 

Lampedusa is closer to the Tunisian coast, the point of departure for the rickety boats carrying the would-be migrants across the southern reaches of the Mediterranean, than it is to Sicily. At less than eight square miles, it is a mere speck. In recent days the number of migrants surpassed the local population, triggering a crisis that both Italy and the EU seem ill-equipped to manage. 

The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen,  briefly joined Ms. Meloni, who campaigned largely on the strength of her pledge to crack down on illegal immigration and to stop the flows at their source, at Lampedusa this week to hammer out a 10-point action plan that in reality has little prospect of deterring fresh migrant arrivals. 

It included a pledge of support to stop departures of smuggling boats by establishing “operational partnerships on anti-smuggling” with countries of origins and transit. Yet that has not worked so far, as the influx at Lampedusa demonstrates. 

In June, the same month that a boat overloaded with migrants sank off the coast of Greece, Ms. Meloni joined Ms. von der Leyen at Tunis to sign an agreement with the Tunisian government to pledge financial support in exchange for preventing the departure of migrant boats. Similar efforts have been tried with Libya in the past,  and also sputtered. 

The new EU plan could also see Tunisia deepen cooperation with Frontex, the EU border force with air and sea assets that currently assists search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. “We will decide who comes to the European Union, and under what circumstances. Not the smugglers,” Ms. von der Leyen said. 

Yet tough talk without concrete action means that the crisis will not subside. In fact, islands like Lampedusa are likely to see an even greater influx of migrants in the coming weeks, as smugglers try to pack up as many boats as possible while the weather is good and the sea still relatively calm. 

Recognition of the EU’s limited capacity to tackle the problem is what in part led Ms. Meloni’s cabinet to approve new measures this week that will increase the number of migrant detention centers. It made no mention, though, of what Ms. Meloni championed in her campaign for office: a naval blockade in the Mediterranean Sea.  

There is muted support for such from Brussels: a spokeswoman for the European Commission, Anitta Hipper, said this week, “We have expressed the support to explore these possibilities.” Ms. Meloni has said that an EU naval blockade could be discussed at a meeting of European leaders slated for October, but aside from the logistical challenges of inter-member coordination there is also the question of will.  

Ms. Meloni got an unexpected assist from President Macron when Mr. Darmanin, his interior minister, said that “things are getting very difficult in Lampedusa. That’s why we should help our Italian friends,” adding that “our will is to fully welcome those who should be welcomed, but we should absolutely send back those who have no reason to be in Europe.” 

In terms unspoken by Ms. von der Leyen and fellow Eurocrats, Mr. Darmanin said there was no reason to grant political asylum to migrants arriving from African countries like Ivory Coast, Guinea, and Gambia, which are not conflict zones. That kind of sentiment, which actually has a basis in international law,  resonates with Ms. Meloni’s political base.

Other European Union member states like Poland have pushed back on the portion of the EU plan that calls  for illegal arrivals in Italy to be dispersed to points north, such as Poland. Berlin has predictably taken a more liberal tack with respect to accepting migrants, but Germany is not on the frontlines of the crisis like Italy. Since January more than 126,000 migrants have entered Italy, and that is almost twice the number that arrived during the same time period in 2022. 

No wonder then that Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, said at a press conference this week that “there are three primary issues facing the world and Europe: climate, energy, and migrants.” No mention of the war in Ukraine, Chinese aggression, or economic decline.

Unchecked immigration represents another curveball thrown at European unity in recent months. If there is to be a naval blockade in the coming months or year, chances are good that the Marina Militare, or Italian navy, will have to go it alone. 

There is no doubt that Rome’s navy can create a blockade, and that doing so could also pay political dividends for Ms. Meloni ahead of European parliamentary elections in the spring. Yet as obvious as it may sound, the sea is not the land, and Italian vessels cannot patrol the entire southern flank of the Mediterranean Sea. Whether in theory or in practice, a naval blockade to keep migrants out and teach the smugglers a lesson could amount to little more than a costly and very wet version of the Maginot Line.

The New York Sun

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