The increased competition between PM Giorgia Meloni and League leader Matteo Salvini has found a new battleground on the issue of migration.
For days, the local news media have been warning Italians of an unfolding crisis on the small island of Lampedusa, off the coast of Sicily, after an unprecedented number of migrant arrivals brought the territory’s facilities to a breaking point.
Nearly 7,000 migrants landed in Lampedusa within 48 hours last week, overwhelming the island’s hosting facility, which has a total capacity of only 400. Protests broke out among the migrants asking to leave the island, while residents also complained about the impossibility of hosting more people on the island.
The entire population of Lampedusa is about 6,300 people - meaning that it almost doubled last week because of the migrant arrivals.
In the midst of an increasingly difficult situation, far-right politician Matteo Salvini, whose party, the League, is currently part of the coalition government led by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, declared that the European Union was to blame for the unfolding crisis.
Not because it has not done enough to help Italy redistribute the migrants across the union - but because it was trying to eliminate the government, he claimed.
“It’s an act of war funded and prepared to put an inconvenient government in trouble,” Salvini, Minister of Infrastructure and Transport said, describing the recent migrant arrivals as an “invasion”.
Salvini’s claim that the EU had “left Italy alone” to deal with the problem of increased arrivals was somehow reinforced by Germany’s decision to halt the relocation of migrants from Italy last week. Berlin has since backtracked on that decision, saying that it will keep taking migrants from the country after all.
In France, the Minister of Interior Affairs Gérald Darmanin said that his country would have not accepted migrants from Lampedusa, saying, as reported by Corriere: “We’re already doing our part.”
A tug of war between Meloni and Salvini
A lack of response and help by Italy’s neighbours and fellow EU members plays into the Euro-scepticism pushed forward by Salvini and his populist party - and gives him a chance to raise his profile over that of Meloni.
“Salvini and Meloni have been in a certain tug of war since the beginning, because I don’t think he ever accepted his loss,” Marianna Griffini, assistant professor in International Relations and Anthropology at the Northeastern University in London, told Euronews.
“He always takes the chance to monopolise public and media attention on the most urgent issues in Italy, he always tries to find a window of opportunity to jump into the conversation and steal some attention from Meloni,” she said.
“This peaked when they were discussing the upcoming EU electoral coalitions this summer and Salvini made it clear that he would stand with Marine Le Pen, while Meloni showed some reservations.”
This conflict at the heart of the Italian government - as well as the heart of French politics and the country’s far-right - was clear when last week Marion Maréchal (granddaughter of French National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen) travelled to Lampedusa to declare her support for the Italian government at the same time as her aunt, Marine Le Pen, travelled to Pontida to meet Salvini, who was holding a party gathering there.
Both expressed their support for Italy’s right-wing government, setting up a contrast with the alleged lack of help from Emmanuel Macron.
“Salvini is formally siding with Meloni, but at the same time he’s trying to push forward his own party, the League,” Griffini said.
On the issue of migration, Salvini’s party has been urging tougher measures, including using the country's navy to stop migrant boats, after declaring that Meloni’s diplomatic approach to the problem has failed.
Von der Leyen’s attempt to keep Meloni close
While Italy’s neighbours reacted to the recent crisis in Lampedusa by reinforcing border checks, sparking the anger of Salvini and Meloni, the head of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen travelled to the island to show her support to the country.
Meloni said that the visit was not an act “of solidarity, but of responsibility.”
Francesco Strazzari, professor in International Relations at the Pisa-based Scuola Universitaria Superiore Sant'Anna, told Euronews that her visit should be seen as an astute political move aimed at keeping Meloni’s government from shifting further right on issues of migration.
“Ursula von der Leyen is scared because she sees that right-wing populism is advancing with the cost of living crisis, the war in Ukraine, and the issue of migration,” Strazzari said.
“I think that von der Leyen’s visit to Lampedusa can be interpreted as an attempt to keep the Italian government stable and moderate, as well as on the EU’s side, showing that a dialogue is possible with Italy’s right-wing government,” he continued.
“But at the same time, Meloni is facing direct competition from Salvini,” Strazzari added. “The European Parliament election is ahead, where Meloni’s and Salvini’s parties will compete for seats and the issue of migration is going to be a big topic.”
So far, Meloni has appeared willing to remain open towards the EU on the issue of migration. But “the number of new arrivals is pushing toward taking a more extreme stance,” Strazzari said.