Frassoni: Italians believe the EU abandoned them to the migration crisis

Monica Frassoni [Greens/EFA]

The Italian government is not losing support because it saves refugees. It is losing support because it is not perceived to be able to convince Europe to do more, says Monica Frassoni, the European Greens co-chair.

Monica Frassoni is an Italian politician; together with Reinhard Bütikofer, she is a co-chair of the European Greens Party.

Frassoni spoke to EURACTIV Czech Republic’s Adéla Denková.

Italy is one of the European member states most exposed to the current migration crisis. How would you describe the situation in the country?

Italy was traditionally an emigration country and it is still the case. There are about 58 million people of Italian origin around the globe and in 2015 about 107,000 people, mostly young and educated, left the country.

The significance of immigration started to grow 10 or 15 years ago; today, about 10% (5 million) of the people living in Italy are foreign nationals, and they contribute to about 8.6% to the GDP according to the last report of the Foundation Leone Maressa. About 30% of them are EU citizens, mostly from Romania. This figure does not include those who became Italian citizens, nor irregular migrants.

It is important to distinguish in the discussion between the EU citizens who migrate from other EU countries, and the non-EU citizens who are coming to Europe. Except in the United Kingdom and except for questions related to posted workers, migrants with EU origins are not controversial in most countries, including Italy.

What does the public debate about migrants coming from the non-EU countries look like in Italy?

The political debate concerning migration has been difficult already for many years. Populist or right-wing parties profited a lot from this discussion, even at the time when it was a theoretical issue. That applies for example to Lega Nord, which was created in the 80s against migrants from the south of Italy and against the inefficiency and corruption of central state and recently followed the model of Le Pen and developed into an anti-European and anti-migrant, nationalist party. Lega was in government for 8 years between 2001 and 2011 and shaped the unwelcoming and inefficient migration policies of the country.

Roberto Maroni, (who was) the interior minister, implemented the policy of rejecting migrants arriving by boat back to Libya, made an infamous agreement with Gaddafi and implemented discriminatory measures against Roma. Italy was heavily criticized by the EU and other international bodies for this.  Both his policies against Roma and African migrants were heavily criticized internationally. So there is nothing new in the hostility against migrants in Italy. Still, after the departure of Berlusconi from the government, the situation has improved; after some terrible events which caused hundreds of victims in the Mediterranean Sea, Italians approved the rescue operation Mare Nostrum.

Has the situation changed in recent years or months?

People in Italy understand that they cannot go and shoot at migrants. On the other hand,  public opinion is very hostile and you can see really nasty discussions and racist episodes are not rare. Public opinion is also convinced that the European Union has left them on their own.

As mentioned, everybody was proud of the Mare Nostrum operation which saved hundreds of thousand people. The Italian government is not losing support because it saves refugees. But it is losing support because it is not perceived to be able to convince Europe to do more and to deal properly with those who arrive.

What does mean “more” at the moment?

The situation at EU level is stuck and there are thousands of migrants arriving every day in Italy; after the closure of the Balkan route, even Syrians start to arrive. On the other hand, the reallocation plan of 160,000 agreed last year is going nowhere. The Italian government is using a double discourse. On the one side, it moves on its own and seeks to find an agreement similar to that with Turkey with Libya and other African countries so that they can take migrants back to their territory, even if the rights of the people are not respected at all. On the other side, Italy wants this issue to be dealt with by the EU as a whole and asked to be able to deduct the expenses incurred from the deficit calculations.

What is the perception of Central European countries who reject the concept of relocation proposed by the European Commission?

Well, it is really negative: Eastern Europe joined the EU and benefit from it, and now (it does) not want to be (in) solidarity. We welcomed them and helped their development, but they do not want to help us. Generally, in relation to other European countries, people are angry that all of these issues became a European problem only when Germany started to have difficulties.

Also, there is a negative attitude towards Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, but people can also see there is not much difference with what the prime minister of France or of UK say and do. There are lots of worries that the EU as a whole is not doing the right thing. And it is quite clear that there is an unbalance between the severity on the accounts and the lack of support on this issue.

Talking about relocation, do you think it is the right solution?

Italy is very much in favour of relocation, and the Greens agree with that. It is the only solution. If you want to have some kind of European policy, you have to accept that it is not possible to transform Greece or southern Italy into a huge refugee camp. You also have to accept that if the refugees do not escape from their homes, they will die. And there are countries like Lebanon or Jordan with half of their population composed of refugees. Several thousand people accepted by the EU countries are ridiculous in comparison with that. We are still the richest continent in the world.

There are 60 million refugees in the world and 95% of them are outside Europe. It is ridiculous. If you read the Lisbon Treaty, The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU and the refugee treaties signed by all of our states, they say that we have to protect people. It is not if we can or want possibly. We have to unless we accept to give up on European values and build a more divided and hostile society.

The Czech government says it is looking for people who would like to come to the Czech Republic, but there are almost none. They say there is no force to make the refugees stay here, as they mostly would like to go to Germany. From this point of view, the relocation scheme does not make sense.

One of the reasons is that the people have family ties in some other European countries. On the other hand, it is also a question of the readiness to accept refugees. And if the message that the Czech government and society – and also the other Visegrad countries – are sending abroad is “you are not welcome” or “I will lock you up” it is clear that it is not very encouraging.  Some governments in Europe think that not taking care of migration issues helps to have fewer immigrants.

Unfortunately, this is probably true in the short term; but it is just making things worse, for both the poorest people in society and for the migrants, who will go on coming anyway. This attitude of devoting enormous amounts of resources to build walls instead than to welcome and integrate at least a certain amount of the millions of refugees and migrants which arrive in Europe, is a terrible mistake, that we pay with more and more violence and discriminations and which will bring no real solution.

On the other hand, Czech officials criticised Italy and Greece for not being able to establish a functional hot spots system fast enough – which was part of the European solution of the migration crisis. It looks that everybody thinks that the others are responsible.

I think that the European institutions have a huge responsibility here. Because you cannot ask Greece to create a perfect system of hotspots in a matter of two months with their economic and social situation, which is partly due to the crazy and unsustainable EU policies of austerity; these policies  have been among the causes of social insecurity and economic crisis in the EU. You cannot ask people, who are anxious and fearful of their future and who do not see any help coming from the EU, to open their arms for everyone.

What some of the states do not understand is that if you are not solidary, you cannot ask for solidarity. There is a very interesting recent example. In the canton of Ticino in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, people voted in a referendum against trans-frontier workers. There are a lot of companies in need of these people who would come in the morning and go back to Italy in the evening. But 58% of the voters said no.

Now, the current president of Lombardy – which lies at the border with Switzerland – is the same Roberto Maroni which rejected migrants at sea when he was interior minister. He now faces a situation in which his own citizens will not be able to go to work in Switzerland. The Swiss are applying the same policies that he himself applied in Italy. You will always find somebody who is more radical than you. This element is part of a vicious cycle in which you can build walls, but walls also can be built against you, is something that has to be taken into account, because Europe could become a prison for all of us in the long run.

After the British referendum, the debate is about whether the EU should give more power back to the member states. What is your view on that? Does the EU need a reform? Should we have “more Europe” or “less Europe”?

If you do not like the actions of your government, are you going to dismantle the central administration and give power to the regions in the Czech Republic? Of course not. You try to change the government! What does it mean “govern back power to member states”? It means to be able to choose to apply or not a common law. It would be the end of the EU. The problem of the EU is that the member states have too much power already.for years, they say that all bad things come from the EU and all positive from them; many block all kinds of common policies and implement the wrong ones; political majorities are held by right-wing and conservative parties which chose austerity policies and prevented the EU

For years, they say that all bad things come from the EU and all positive from them. Many block all kinds of common policies and implement the wrong ones. Political majorities are held by right-wing and conservative parties, which chose austerity policies and prevented the EU from helping create jobs and investment in innovation and new, more sustainable economic activities.

What should the solution be?

There is a challenge for people like me who believe that Europe is not just a geographical concept, but stands for freedom, human rights, transformation of the economy towards sustainability. We must be more successful with our actions and gain the consensus of the people, because if we do not change the political majorities, we are in a trouble. At the same time, we need to fight against an EU where all is decided behind closed doors by a bunch of national ministers and bankers and some European ones. We need to strengthen democracy and transparency at EU level.

At the same time, we need to fight against an EU where all is decided behind closed doors by a bunch of national ministers and bankers and some European ones. We need to strengthen democracy and transparency at EU level.

What would you do with those who do not wish to continue with European integration? 

I believe it is OK if some want to go on entertaining the idea that something like a fully “sovereign” national state can still exist, in a situation in which the whole EU will represent less than 7% of world population in a few years and everything, from economy, finance, research, environment and climate issues and even crime, is more and more supranational. As the case of the UK demonstrates, if you do not like to share your little power, you may as well leave and decide to cooperate with the EU in a different way than by being a part of it.

I am sorry for those British voters who wanted to stay in the EU and I am sorry that the people in the UK decided on the basis of lies. What I would like to see is a true discussion in the Czech Republic on EU and other countries which is not based on lies. There is a need for a clear understanding that the EU is not only about money from structural funds.

I understand that you are pleading for a deeper European integration, right?

We need a much more integrated, democratic system able to decide and deliver. It is not that much about competencies because the competencies of European institutions are already there. But we need more money in the EU budget in order to implement common policies. We need to improve decision-making processes by making it more transparent and accountable and eliminating the veto power. We need to really give back control to the peoples of Europe. But not to their national governments.

We need to improve decision-making processes by making it more transparent and accountable and eliminating the veto power. We need to really give back control to the peoples of Europe. But not to their national governments.

Do you think that the eastern enlargement of the EU was a mistake?

I was voting for the enlargement at that time as an MEP. I remember I was very hesitant on the one hand, but on the other one I was very conscious of the fact that it was an important historic achievement. It happened in a wrong way because the integration process was not complete; too easy to block the machine. But this was not the fault of the new countries. Most member states and in particular the UK, France or Germany had not prepared the EU for enlargement.

Actually, the UK succeeded in playing the need to deepen the EU and enlargement against each-other; in order to prevent the EU from deepening its integration, it was necessary to “dilute” it by making of it a very heterogeneous mismatch. And indeed the EU was not strong enough. Our common budget is too low and any member state is able to block important policies. In fact, we need a deeper integration, more decisions based on a majority vote and much more autonomy for the Commission.

You came to Prague for an internal meeting of the board of the Green European Foundation which aims to support civil society across Europe. If you look at the current situation in Europe, you can see lots of populists gaining voters. In the Czech Republic with our Vice-Prime Minister Andrej Babiš who owns a large media house and is one of the wealthiest businessmen in the country, we may even see a development slightly similar to what happened in Italy with Silvio Berlusconi. Is civil society able to do something about this?

The EU is responsible for having not reacted against Berlusconi and his media concentration and lack of pluralism. The European Parliament and many NGOs tried to push for strong legislation, but member states did not allow it. Berlusconi was less dangerous than Mr. Orbán in Hungary or Mr. Kaczyński in Poland. But I am convinced that even phenomenon like Orbán would be much better controlled if the EU had been serious in showing certain things are no more possible in Europe. It did not, and now it is losing credibility as a defender of democracy and rule of law, which is indeed one of the major reasons why the EU exists.  When I talk to democrats in Turkey, they say they cannot trust the EU, as it does nothing for them.

There are several huge challenges for the civil society. One of the major problems is that civil society organizations work still at a national level and are not yet able to create an EU-wide movement.  Unless we work also in a transnational way, we are not going to win on migration, on democracy and on imposing a new, more sustainable economic system. Also, doing politics costs money and today it seems that populists and racists are more able to gather funds than activists or democratic politicians. I am not sure why this is: it looks like the economic forces do not understand that losing democracy also means losing prosperity.