Italian Politics Takes a Worrisome Turn on Race

A month before its general elections, Italy’s attention has turned to the poisonous issue of immigration. Eyeing electoral opportunity, right-of-center politicians are fanning the flames of racism.

A deplorable tactic, it goes without saying — but Italy’s partners in the European Union aren’t blameless. When they left Italy alone to deal with the refugee crisis, they did the country’s extremists a great favor. It’s a choice they may come to regret.

Last week police arrested a Nigerian drug-dealer for allegedly killing a young girl and hiding her dismembered body in two suitcases. Days later, in an alleged act of revenge, a far-right extremist went on a shooting rampage, injuring six African immigrants. Parts of the center-right coalition, which is leading in the polls and could win an outright majority, responded with the race card.

Matteo Salvini, leader of the xenophobic Northern League, said uncontrolled immigration was to blame. The extremist arrested for the shootings had links with the League, which he represented in a local election last year — a connection the party should be ashamed of. And it’s doubly offensive for Salvini in effect to blame immigrants for the attack, when immigrants were the victims.

Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister and leader of Forza Italia, also piled on. He pledged to deport 600,000 illegal immigrants, saying this was a “social time bomb ready to explode.”

Frans Timmermans, first vice-president of the European Commission, condemned the shootings, rightly calling them “a wilful attack on our most fundamental values.” Yet to many voters these words from Europe will ring hollow. Italians feel that the rest of the EU turned a blind eye to their struggle to manage the inflow of migrants from Africa.

Their resentment is understandable. The Italian government has spent heavily on rescuing migrants at sea and processing their applications for asylum — while the rest of the EU has failed to devise a system for relocating refugees, which could have helped to ease Italy’s burden. Agreement on such a scheme is long overdue.

That’s a shame in itself, and the consequences could prove far-reaching. Europe’s reward for its negligence may soon be an Italian government less inclined to cooperate, and not just on immigration. Looking back, the cost of more effective burden-sharing could seem like a bargain.

–Editors: Ferdinando Giugliano, Clive Crook

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at
[email protected]