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The European migrant crisis is once again making headlines, this time from the small island of Lampedusa, Italy. It exposes not only the far right's eagerness to exploit the issue of immigration, but also the delicate balance of power in electoral terms.
PARIS — Europe is facing a new test of its unity and strength. In recent years, it had to tackle challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This time, the test comes from the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa.
This 20 square-kilometer island saw more migrants arrive last week than it has inhabitants, some 8500 people, largely from Tunisia, arriving on 200 boats. While this is a large number for the island to handle, it's s important to have perspective before using terms such as "invasion." We are far from the numbers seen in 2015 when one million migrants arrived, particularly from Syria.
The issue is humanitarian, but also, ultimately, political. It challenges the hard line on immigration of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, and her coalition that spans from center-right to far-right allies. The arrival of migrants en masse serves as an ideal opportunity for political exploitation as the campaign for the European elections begins. It also disrupts the shaky migration policy of the European Union and the agreement narrowly reached in June.
The European far right
This issue at hand is inherently political: immigration has always been a favorite topic for the European far-right. In France, this weekend, we heard former far-right presidential candidate Éric Zemmour opposing the idea of welcoming any refugees from Lampedusa to France. Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen, leader of the top far-right party happened to be in Italy for a now annual encounter with her friends from the populist right-wing League party, led by Matteo Salvini, a minister in the Meloni government.
It's not easy to navigate the components of the European far-right. Meloni is now calling for European solidarity on the migrant issue, but she was in Budapest a few days ago with her friend Viktor Orban, who refuses to accept any migrants. The tone is also different between the Prime Minister and her ally Salvini. This complicates the project of forming a common far-right group ahead of the upcoming European elections, especially when there are currently three separate groups in existence.
No one has a miracle solution.
For her part, Ursula Von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, was on site in Lampedusa on Sunday, alongside Meloni, to reaffirm Europe's solidarity with Italy. It was a crucial show of support as the new signs of discord emerge across Europe.
September 17: Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen attend a press conference in Lampedusa.
Values and rhetoric
The 27 countries in the EU are theoretically bound by an agreement for the redistribution of migrants who arrive in neighboring countries. However, implementation is never easy. Germany had announced on Wednesday that it would not apply this agreement due to disagreements with Italy. But on Friday, Berlin reversed its decision and will now welcome more than 2,000 refugees from Lampedusa.
The problem runs deeper. Let's be clear, no one has a miracle solution – especially not those making martial declarations. Giorgia Meloni is experiencing this harsh reality. She was recently in Tunisia to sign an agreement effectively outsourcing the management of migration flows to a departure country. And yet that didn't stop all those boats in recent days from departing from Tunisia.
Amid political opportunism, empty rhetoric, and flawed solutions, the issue of migration has been a recurring and explosive topic for decades. At the very least, Europe must remain true to the "values" it proclaims in its speeches, remembering that, contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of refugees in the world right now are not found in Europe, but in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
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