Matteo Salvini, Italy’s new interior minister has told reporters on Tuesday that he will visit Libya by the end of the month to discuss a regional approach for tackling the problem of illegal migration. He repeated the same remarks today during his first briefing to the Italian senate.
In Tripoli Mr Salvini is expected to focus on two objectives: first, seeking support from Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) for measures aimed at bolstering the bilateral agreement signed in 2017. These may include a mechanism for encouraging wider participation from migrants stranded in Libya in the current scheme for processing asylum seekers. Mr Salvini hopes that the move will provide him with legal ground to deport those ineligible back to their home countries. Mass deportation of migrants is a core policy priority of Mr Salvini’s Lega Party which in the recent electoral campaign had promised supporters that it will deport half a million illegal migrants and shut down the country’s ports to rescue boats. Mr Salvini told the senate that he is already in talks with counterparts in Germany, Belgium and France to encourage their governments to share the burden of tackling migration including the implementation of EU’s asylum quotas.
Second: offering further training and support to encourage GNA’s Coast Guard to resume their operations of intercepting migrant boats and forcing them to return to Libya. Patrol boats operated in Libya’s territorial waters by GNA’s Coast Guard had suddenly disappeared over the last few weeks resulting in a sharp rise in the number of illegal migrants trying to reach Italy from ports on Libya’s western coast. The figure exceeded 1200 just in the last few days. It remains unclear whether Italy’s new populist government wants to send the migrants directly to their home countries, or after offering them a chance at asylum in the Libya-based asylum centers.
However, it was clear after the last three days that delivering on such hardline promises is not going to be straightforward. Barely a week has passed since the leader of the anti-immigrant Lega Party was named deputy prime minister and minister of interior, yet he is already making international headlines and facing a real diplomatic crisis with France. The French ambassador to Rome was summoned today for a dressing down in response to hostile remarks made by French president Emmanuel Macron and the spokesman of his political party.
On Monday when Italy’s new government closed Sicily’s ports to Aquarius, a rescue ship carrying over 629 illegal migrants, Emmanuel Macron described the decision as “cynical and irresponsible” while his spokesman said: “The line of the Italian government makes you want to vomit”. In his first reaction, Mr Salvini said yesterday on twitter: “Spain wants to condemn us, and France is calling us ‘disgusting’. I want to work peacefully with everyone, but on the principle of ‘Italians first’” referring to his party’s electoral slogan.
His tweet was followed with a tougher response during today's senate briefing by demanding the French government to apologize and accusing it of hypocrisy for failing to honour its commitment to accept 9,816 migrants as part of EU’s quota agreement signed in 2015: “I ask Macron to move from theory to practice and take, tomorrow morning, in a sign of concrete generosity, the 9,000 migrants.”
As for Libya, and given populist parties’ apparent weakness for strongmen, it seems likely that the new Italian government will seek closer relationship with Khalifa Hifter, the General Commander of eastern Libya’s self-styled Libyan National Army. However, the new Italian government will have to do more if it wants a genuine and lasting cooperation with Libya. Honouring the Friendship Agreement signed in 2008 and addressing Libya’s fears from nostalgic colonialist rhetoric by some ranks of the populist camp would be a good place to start.