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Why Italy Dares to Turn Away Refugees

Walter Russell Mead

Italy’s new populist government signals a major challenge to the European status quo, but not in the way most observers initially expected. The governing coalition has put its challenge to euro policy on hold. Instead it is turning to a subject on which the European establishment is more vulnerable: migration. The force behind the shift is Matteo Salvini, Italy’s new minister of the interior. He is also the leader of the League, the smaller and more right-wing of Italy’s two ruling parties.

Mr. Salvini shocked Brussels last week by denying Italian entry to the MS Aquarius, a rescue ship that had plucked 629 drowning would-be migrants from the seas off Libya. As human-rights activists reacted with anger, Mr. Salvini doubled down, banning all migrant rescue ships from all Italian ports.

French President Emmanuel Macron denounced Mr. Salvini for abandoning refugees; Mr. Salvini torched the French for hypocritically leaving Italy alone to bear the burden of helping them. Roiling matters further, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, the head of Bavaria’s conservative Christian Social Union and an essential partner in Angela Merkel’s national coalition, gave Mr. Salvini a congratulatory phone call and asked to meet with him.

For many Italians, starved for a national show of strength after years of marginalization, the standoff was almost as gratifying as a World Cup victory. As interior minister of a weak debtor nation, Mr. Salvini had done what Britain’s euroskeptics can only dream of: smack down France and split the German establishment against itself. According to the polling firm Ipsos, about 60% of Italians backed Mr. Salvini’s stance. Those who dissented, perhaps following Pope Francis, were swept aside in a surge of patriotic and anti-immigrant sentiment.

Meanwhile, Mr. Salvini advanced his standing within the Italian coalition. The two parties that make up the new government—Mr. Salvini’s League and the 5 Star Movement—are anything but congenial. Both are populist and critical of the European establishment. But the League is an offshoot of Italy’s old right, and the 5 Star Movement, though ideologically diverse, draws many of its members from the country’s old labor left.

The League won 17.4% of the vote in the March elections, compared with 32.7% for 5 Star. But the League’s numbers are creeping upward. That’s partly because Mr. Salvini, a former radio talk-show host, has grasped what seasoned European politicians try not to think about: that Europe will face enormous migration pressure over the coming decades.

Africa’s population, currently estimated at about 1.26 billion, is projected to double by 2050. Many of those additional people will be poor, but smartphones and the internet will keep them informed of the enormous gap between European and African living standards. It’s likely that for the next several decades many countries in Africa (as well as the Middle East and Central Asia) will remain underdeveloped, torn by civil and religious violence, and producing large numbers of desperate young men.

Europe simply cannot deal with these pressures unless it develops much stronger tools to control migration. Today, such ideas remain unthinkable among respectable European politicians, but that equilibrium is fragile. Almost two-thirds of Europeans cite either migration (38%) or terrorism (29%) as one of the European Union’s two most important problems, according to the most recent Eurobarometer poll. Addressing climate change and strengthening Europe’s place in the world, causes much closer to the heart of the European establishment, were each cited as important by only 11% of those surveyed.

For an Italian government itching for a fight with the European establishment, migration is a more potent issue than the euro. For all the economic pain Italians associate with the common currency, less than a quarter want to give it up. Any threat to shake up the Continent’s monetary union would unite Germans behind Mrs. Merkel, while defiance over migration hits at her weak spot. For Mr. Salvini, raising migration is a win-win-win: he divides the left and unites the right at home; he challenges the elite European consensus; and he establishes himself as a figure of international significance.

Next up: Mr. Salvini has promised to expel hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who entered Italy under past administrations. Will the public continue to support tough policies when the cameras show migrants being rounded up and processed for deportation?

Politicians all over Europe will be watching. If Mr. Salvini’s migration gambit continues to work, expect others to jump on the bandwagon.

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