The Italian job. Migration, security and foreign policy in the Mediterranean

After the European Union (EU) signed an agreement with Turkey to stem migration flows to Western Balkan route (18 March 2016), thousands of migrants have crossed the Mediterranean and fled to Italy. However, Italy appears unable to support the migrant pressure: at national and local level, Italian authorities are trying to ask for a major cooperation from region to region to guarantee a better relocation of migrants within the country, while asking for support, mainly from the European countries, during the last international fora.

The Hamburg summit

Migration and security were among the issues at stake in the 2017 G20 Hamburg summit, held on 7–8 July, at Hamburg Messe (Hamburg, Germany). Italy has been able to find a room to present at international level the Italian efforts in coping with the migrant crisis.

Since the beginning of 2017, the percentage of migrants arrived on Italian coasts has increased, reaching the peak of +16.7. These numbers are destined to grow until December 2017, according to the Italian Ministry of Interior. During the summit in Hamburg, Italy asked the repatriation of the so-called ‘economic migrants’ as well as the relocation of refugees across Europe. According to Italy, the Operation “Triton” should be revised. As per today, the Operation considers Italy the headquarter of all sea operations and the first harbor for all refugee boats. The operations are all under the management of the Italian Coast Guard.

Italy asked also for a major involvement of other Southern European countries, through the opening of their ports to the migrants rescued at sea by the Italian Coast Guard or NGOs. This would entail the avoidance of the current drop off of migrants at the Italian ports. This proposal, after a brief moment in which it seemed to be welcomed by Germany and France, received then a stop from the other EU member states. The initiative proposed by Italy did not gain support because the point stressed by the participants of the G20 summit was that every nation has the right to protect its borders. In spite of that, the European Commission is planning to relocate thousands of refugees to Greece in order to partially relieve Italy from the overload of arrivals. Besides this, it has been planned to set up a coordination center in Libya for migrants. The establishment of such structure is unsure since it depends on the willingness of the EU member states to welcome a higher migrant quotas and to open their ports.

Italian-Libyan affairs

In the meantime, Italy is trying to maintain supportive relations with Libyan authorities. On 7 July 2017, the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Angelino Alfano, signed an agreement with the Vice Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya, Ahmed Maiteeq, to relaunch the economic cooperation between Italy and Libya. The deal marks the beginning of the “Italian-Libyan Economic Forum” to restore the business relations between the two countries in different domains (from trade to infrastructures). In addition, the meeting and the relative agreement are the representation of a new cooperation between Libya and Italy also on the political level. The migration issue has been discussed by the two representatives from the Italian and the Libyan government. The problems related to the management of the migrant flood will affect the development of the commercial agreement between Italy and Libya as well as the stability of the entire Mediterranean area.

Italy and Libya have signed in February 2017 a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to stem the flow of migrants headed to Europe. The Italian government promised money, training and equipment to help the UN-backed Libyan government cope with the monitoring of its borders.

Italy-Austria tensions on the migrant crisis

While Italy has to face the practical issues related to the welcoming of the migrants, on the other side the political issues are even harder to solve. In particular, the major discussions are with Austria. At the moment, Austria is chairing the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE). The position that the country has regarding the migrants flood appears rather harsh: since last year, Austria is threatening Italy to close the borders in order to avoid an uncontrolled flood of migrants to the country. The evolution of this position is even harsher and it risks to undermine the Italian-Austrian relations. The Austrian Minister for Foreign Affairs and Integration, Sebastian Kurz, during a meeting in Vienna with his Italian homologous, Angelino Alfano, reaffirmed the Austrian position also stating that Italy should stop transferring illegal migrants from islands to the mainland. The retaliation would be the closing of Austrian border at the Brenner Pass to secure Austria.

Migration means also a major attention on the security of Europe’s Southern borders. Italy has a relevant role in the Mediterranean and is playing a fundamental role in the management of Operation “Triton” and, previously with the successful Operation “Mare Nostrum” operated by the Italian Navy, the country still does not have a real national maritime strategy to reaffirm. The opportunity to position Italy at the center of the Mediterranean area will be the Italian Chairmanship of the OSCE. Angelino Alfano highlighted, after his meeting with Kurz, that Italy will focus more on the countries in Southern Europe and the Mediterranean. The Operation “Mare Nostrum” will be the focus of the Chairmanship since, as it has been affirmed frequently, the principal threats to Europe come from the Mediterranean: terrorism and migration. Alfano also affirmed that the Mediterranean crisis will be faced not only from a security perspective, but also from a cultural and religious perspective. In this sense, the promotion of cooperation security will be implemented.

Risks and scenarios

Regarding the European approach, the Italian government should change its attitude proposing new welcoming measure for migrants and adopting new measure in cooperation with Libyan government. The Libyan forces in coordination with the United Nations should organize a plan to guarantee first assistance of migrants directly on the Libyan coasts.

Politically, Italy should stop relying on the EU to stabilize a migrant quota shareable by all the member states and the cooperating states part of the Operation “Triton.” The result of this would be an exacerbation of the existent discussions among states regarding migrants and the migration policies, that will remain the first responsibility of the states as demonstration of the countries’ sovereignty. The the exit of Italy from the Operation “Triton” is also possible. This risk, however, is not high, since it would have negative impact on the Italian role in the Mediterranean. This scenario would put Italy aside and would leave the Southern coasts of Europe to France, Austria, and Slovenia. Furthermore, the exit of Italy from the Operation “Triton” would increase exponentially the trafficking business and would assign to the Italian Navy the task to protect Italy’s Southern borders with less support from the EU.

In addition, the agreement between Italy and Libya would be also undermined by a possible Italian exit from the Operation “Triton.” The agreement itself has been already accused to be a pro-trafficking deal. If Italy will put itself in an opposite position compared to the EU directives, the agreement will lose its power and the migration flood will increase, comporting a series of consequences that will involve not only the Mediterranean area but Europe as a whole.

If Italy continues instead to manage Operation “Triton,” the chances to set up new diplomatic relations between Libya and Europe will increase. Italy, in this frame, will play a relevant role and would reacquire a central position in the Mediterranean context by reaffirming a predominant role in solving the migrant crisis.