Italian President Sergio Mattarella said this week it was “irresponsible” for the new Italian government to let its strict anti-migrant policies put the European Union’s open border laws at risk, adding his voice to a growing chorus of public figures opposed to the measures.

“Freedom of movement for Italians,” Mattarella said on a state visit to Estonia, “is an irrevocable fact.”

Only five weeks after it was installed, the new Italian government is so far probably best known for its strict policies on asylum seekers. The country has refused to let non-Italian rescue ships dock in its harbors, and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has pressured other European Union leaders to toughen their laws on migration. Matteo Salvini, one of two deputy prime ministers and the country’s minister of the interior, has threatened to kick out as many as half a million migrants already living in Italy.

Polls show a growing minority of Italians support tougher policies on migrants, who pollsters say are frequently blamed for rising crime rates, violence, and increasing government expenditures. But the rigorous policies Conte and Salvini have pushed for are also drawing criticism from across the spectrum in Italy, among them athletes, actors, intellectuals, and political leaders.


“I think it is time for Italy to wake up and become more open to people from outside, following the example of France or England,” said Mario Balotelli, one of the best-known players on Italy’s national soccer team. Balotelli is himself the child of migrants from Ghana.

Claudio Amendola, a television and cinema actor, said Italy must move past what he called a “fear” of those from other cultures or races.

“We all have a little bit of fear but we cannot let our country go adrift,” Amendola said. “I think it is time to awaken our national conscience that until now has been a bit too dormant.”

A letter signed by more than 200 public intellectuals — academics, writers, and think tank fellows — made similar charges, saying the government’s anti-migrant policies were “unconstitutional, morally unacceptable, and contrary to the most basic human rights.”

Matteo Renzi, a former Italian prime minister, made the unusual choice to criticize the government’s policies in a column published in the U.S.-based Washington Post to mark World Refugee Day. In the article, he said the government was too busy making a play for the approval of their anti-migrant base to take the correct steps.

“I have always said that faced with a person who is about to drown, our first thought must be to save them and only afterwards to think of the effect on public opinion,” Renzi wrote. “You can lose an election, but you shouldn’t lose your human dignity.”


In Italy, the president is the head of state, a largely ceremonial role compared with that of the prime minister, who is the head of government. The president usually tries to stay above most day-to-day political issues.

But because of the unusual results from Italy’s general election in March — two populist parties both exceeded any of their previous results — and the controversial stances taken by the resulting government, Mattarella has been forced into a more public role.

Even so, his recent criticisms against the government are usual. Regarding Salvini’s recent call for a European alliance against “mass migration,” Mattarella noted that the heating up of anti-migrant rhetoric was irrational.

“Between the middle of 2017 to middle of 2018, arrivals to Italy from Africa have fallen by 85 percent,” Mattarella said. “Talking about closing borders isn’t rational, it is a response to emotions. But responsible politics require rationality.” EndItem

by Eric J. Lyman



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