Society

How A 'Refugee Town' Fell Victim To Italy's Populist Politics

Fourteen months ago the progressive mayor of Riace, in Calabria, was arrested. Soon after, many of the refugees he'd help settle pulled up stakes and left.

Manifestation of solidarity to the mayor of Riace Mimmo Lucano on May 11, 2018
Filippo Femia

RIACE — The blue plaque at the entrance of the pottery shop says "Home sweet home." It also seems to read Tsehayneshe's thoughts. This is where she belongs and plans to say, even if things aren't as they used to be.

"In Eritrea, my name means sun. Here in Riace, it feels like the sun's been gone for some time now," she says while hand-coloring a terracotta butterfly.

Staring at the deserted street outside the store, she remembers when everything began to change in the village, located in the Calabrian province of Locri. The turning point came in October 2018, soon after former mayor Domenico "Mimmo" Lucano was arrested on charges of favoring illegal immigration, embezzlement and abuse of office.

"So many people left, many friends," says Tsehayneshe. "Here the streets used to be noisy. Happiness was in the air and we used to dance. Now it's all over. But, you know, this is my home, and here I'll stay."

Just scraping by

Tsehayneshe arrived in 2003 to the refugee town of Riace, which a year ago still boasted some 450 residents. But now Tsehayneshe is one of only about 40 people left. Together they represent somewhat of a resistance.

Domenico Lucano, former mayor of Riace in Calabria attending the Left Party Congress in Berlin on Nov. 23, 2019. — Photo: Joerg Carstensen/DPA/ZUMA

The few remaining families saw the migrant-friendly Riace model begin to crumble away, not unlike the rainbow colors scraped off the steps of the concrete amphitheater at the entrance of the village. Dozens of children of all origins used to play in front of this rainbow. Now, Riace's square is silent.

"My son and I will not go away," whispers Tsehayneshe, smiling.

Seen through her eyes, the end of the Riace resettlement project spearheaded by SPRAR, Italy's Protection System for Asylum Seekers and Refugees, was the beginning of a nightmare. It triggered the exodus of refugees and asylum seekers who had been living in Riace for years. Some found hospitality in other cities in southern Italy. Others left for Belgium, France and Germany.

But in the last few months, the situation again seems to have changed — for the better. Hope in Riace now carries the scent of freshly squeezed olives. Thanks to donations from the "It was the Wind" Foundation, a community olive oil mill has opened.

The hospitality policy helped to resurrect Riace, but the village risks dying out again

The money has also allowed the reopening of the artisanal workshops that were the cornerstone of former Mayor Lucano's utopia, a resettlement model to revive a progressively abandoned town that was celebrated by the director Wim Wenders and dozens of universities around the world.

In the textile workshop, Rafia Munir is finishing up a violet carpet. She used to be a teacher in the Northern Indian province of Kashmir, which she fled in 2014. For her, weaving is a return to her origins. "My grandparents produced carpets," she explains.

When the SPRAR resettlement project ended, she, her husband and two children found themselves in an apartment suddenly cut off from water and electricity. "Mayor Lucano found us a new home," she explains. "We wouldn't be here without his help."

Three weeks ago, they received official authorization to sell their wares to the few tourists who still pop into Riace. "Before it was different," Munir says. "Hundreds of people arrived every day, but now you see almost no one."

The Riace workshops provided jobs to native Italians, too. Inside the "Kites from Kabul" shop is Daniela Pisani, a 48-year-old from Rome who married a Calabrian. "The hospitality policy really helped to resurrect Riace, but the village risks dying out again," she explains. "The new mayor is dismantling what his predecessor did. It's a thumb in the nose not just to Mimmo Lucano, but to all Riace's inhabitants."

Pisani invokes the controversial removal of the plaque at the entrance of the village, which once read, "Riace, The Town of Hospitality." In its place now is a sign depicting the patron saints Cosmas and Damian.

The current mayor, Antonio Trifoli, elected six months ago by a council dominated by the far-right League party, defends his actions. "Here, there was never a division between those who were for or against a policy of welcoming refugees,"he says. "Former Mayor Lucano abandoned a part of the village, and he was punished for it at the ballot box. He also left the municipality in financial disarray."

A village divided

It only takes walking the nine kilometers between the village itself and the marina to discover another Riace. Here, Mimmo Lucano was never popular. And the relief of the citizens at his ouster is evident. "We're much better off without illegal migrants," says Domenico Rullo, a 26-year-old construction worker.

He helped my family when I didn't have a red cent in my pocket.

"Lucano provided jobs only for migrants," he adds. "Under the new administration I've already had a few little jobs — this is how it should be, locals first. I'm with Matteo Salvini, and I'm not ashamed to say it."

This is the symbol of a village divided, ripped in two.

Lucano, meanwhile, returned from his court-ordered exile, after the Court of Appeal revoked the ban on his residing in Riace this past April. Now he must stand trial for allegedly facilitating illegal immigration and fraudulently awarding government contracts for waste collection services.

As he drives by, a girl sitting at the bar greets him. "He is my mayor!," she says. "Everyone makes mistakes. And even if the court finds him guilty, he's innocent to me. He helped my family when I didn't have a red cent in my pocket."

Lucano just returned from the United States, where he spoke about the Riace model at the Library of Congress. "Nobody will ever be able to take away the pride I feel for what we did, for showing the world what we were able to do for this little forgotten village," Lucano says.

He hasn't lost his will to continue the struggle. "I don't pretend to know the pace of justice, but being mayor of Riace is what has so far given me the most satisfaction. I wouldn't be opposed to doing it again. But first I have to understand what it is my people want."

At this, the girl at the bar, a spontaneous vox populi, sends up her cry once more: "This is my mayor!"

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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