Meloni and the EU align on the Mediterranean pivot
Since coming into office, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has adopted a more pragmatic stance on migration compared to her harsh rhetoric as an opposition politician.
Meloni and the EU align on the Mediterranean pivot
Since coming into office, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has adopted a more pragmatic stance on migration compared to her harsh rhetoric as an opposition politician. At the same time, under her leadership, Italy has given up on any remaining demand for greater responsibility sharing at the EU level.
Meloni has taken full ownership of the Commission’s blueprint to curb migration via partnerships with third countries in the Mediterranean, seeking to strengthen her role as a strategic player. In turn, the EU has been capitalising on Italy’s diplomatic channels to manage migration outside its borders.
The resulting alignment on this “Mediterranean pivot” has marked a decisive shift towards external migration management in the Pact’s negotiations. However, rather than delivering on the reform promises of the Pact, this strategy is likely to increase Italy’s and the Union’s dependence on their partners in the Southern Neighbourhood.
Migration and the pivot to the Mediterranean
While the Mediterranean has always had strategic geopolitical importance for Italy, Meloni’s government has been increasingly involved in Mediterranean affairs with the declared goals of steering migration, combatting human trafficking, and promoting comprehensive partnerships with countries of origin and transit.
The diplomatic activism of Meloni’s government materialised in over 20 high-level missions undertaken in the region between November 2022 and July 2023 to canvas the country’s policy agenda and relations with its neighbours.
The EU has seen these diplomatic channels as an opportunity at a time when the failure to reach an agreement on the New Pact on Migration and Asylum (the Pact) – or on one that delivers – is still looming.
Solving the long-standing responsibility sharing conundrum, in fact, has proven extremely difficult in the negotiations. Instead, the option to prevent migration and manage it outside the Union’s border has increasingly gained traction with the Commission and the Member States, offering Italy the driving seat in this process.
In this respect, the EU’s unfolding partnership with Tunisia exemplifies the alignment between Italy’s diplomatic priorities and the Commission’s firm will to find answers to the unsolved migration business.
In July, Prime Minister Meloni together with Dutch Prime Minister Rutte and EU Commission President Von der Leyen signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Tunisia to strengthen multilateral cooperation. Migration management was not the only point on the agenda, with macroeconomic stability and the green and digital transitions also mentioned. Certainly, though, this was the issue driving Meloni’s diplomatic effort and winning the Commission’s endorsement of the deal despite widespread concerns and harsh criticisms as to the human rights and rule of law situation in Tunisia.
In fact, the MoU was saluted – rather prematurely – as “a blueprint for similar partnerships” and an achievement of Team Europe, the approach spearheaded by the Commission to devise joint development action by the EU institutions and the Member States together with implementing agencies and public development banks.
Consistent with this approach, in fact, the agreement with Tunisia and Meloni’s approach aspire to establish a much more multidimensional and comprehensive partnership compared to the precedent set by Italy’s deal with Libya. Concluded in 2017 by the centre left Gentiloni government, the MoU with Libya had a prominent focus on security and the stabilisation of the country. The one with Tunisia, instead, blends migration deterrence with development cash.
In less than one year, the deal with Tunisia and Meloni’s strategy around it have also marked a decisive alignment on the external dimension of migration management. In addition to announcing more partnerships like the one with Tunisia, in fact, Von der Leyen has opened up to other items on Meloni’s agenda.
At the press conference during her emergency visit to Lampedusa in mid-September, Von der Leyen presented a 10-point plan that includes the possibility to expand naval missions in the Mediterranean to halt smugglers.
Full-scale naval blockades with a similar intent have been a pillar of Meloni’s electoral campaign. While Von der Leyen did not endorse this option, in a nod to her partner, she clearly hinted at exploring more realistic policing missions in the region. During the same press conference, Meloni, for her part, stated her readiness to seek European solutions to stop illegal migration, “Europeanising” her once much more nationalistic rhetoric on the subject.
Rome and Brussels: a marriage of true minds?
Almost ten years into failed attempts to reform the European asylum system, both Meloni’s and Von der Leyen’s stakes in finding common ground on external migration management are high.
When it comes to Meloni, once elected, she has sought to bring to the EU agenda her calls to halt migration by calling for the EU’s involvement to achieve this objective. In parallel, she has also abandoned Italy’s demands for more solidarity through relocations in a shift away from the country’s traditional stance on the asylum system reform.
This strategy has two objectives. The first one comes down to consolidating Italy’s role as a strategic player in the Mediterranean through external partnerships, like the ones with Libya and Tunisia, and coalition building. For the latter, Italy also relies on the MED9 group, which brings together Italy, Croatia, Cyprus, France, Greece, Malta, Portugal, Slovenia, and Spain.
Testifying to the relevance of the Mediterranean solution to migration management, the MED9 summit held in Malta on Sept 29th called for a deepening of the EU-Southern Mediterranean relations to tackle smuggling and address the root causes of migration to Europe, possibly also via greater funding for countries in the region as part of the review of the EU’s 2021-2027 budget.
Second, and relatedly, alignment on the Mediterranean pivot also gives Meloni’s government leverage in the negotiations on the asylum reform. Italy’s role in partnerships with third countries, for example, strengthens Rome’s position against the compromise backed by Germany on the crisis regulation which has led to a temporary stalemate at the latest Justice and Home Affairs Council on September 28th-29th.
The Commission, for its part, is set to gain from the alignment with Italy on externalisation with respect to both the outcome of the Pact’s negotiations and the new institutional cycle.
Regarding the reform of the asylum system, the pivot to the Mediterranean represents an opportunity for the Commission to show that the EU can deliver on migration, including by working with governments politically close to Meloni’s. To achieve that, the Commission increasingly relies on external partners while pursuing minimal objectives on the internal dimension of responsibility sharing.
With respect to the upcoming institutional cycle, for Commission President Von der Leyen achieving greater alignment with Italy means broadening her support base and securing Meloni’s party support to be re-elected.
When it comes to the migration file, Meloni and Von der Leyen’s recent moves seal the general alignment of the Union on reducing the number of arrivals rather than managing them. As such, the Mediterranean pivot is likely to have three implications for asylum reform, cooperation with third countries, and Italy’s internal politics respectively.
In relation to the Pact, and reinforcing a general trend in EU migration policy, Meloni’s strong pivot to the Mediterranean has arguably taken the edges off on the Dublin reform, mandatory solidarity, and more broadly, the achievement of a working and fairer responsibility sharing system.
With virtually no Member State taking a strong stance in favour of a solution in this direction, it is doubtful to what extent the Pact will have practical effects on migration management beyond revamping its external dimension. On this matter, talks within the Council have been more advanced since the early stages of the negotiations and will likely be the catalyst of a potential political agreement by the December 2023 deadline.
When it comes to cooperation with third countries, despite the advantages of Italy’s diplomatic activism in the Mediterranean so far, the Commission will have to strengthen the institutional balance and human rights accountability of future Team Europe deals if the approach is to remain viable.
More broadly, given the high stakes behind the Mediterranean pivot, there is a concrete risk that multidimensional partnerships like the one with Tunisia end up revolving around the unilateral EU’s objective of stemming migration. Going forward, it will be essential to avert this risk by bringing in a truly balanced view of multilateral cooperation and continue working to ensure that the EU can manage migration internally, too.
Finally, regarding Italian politics, Meloni is going to capitalise on her government’s diplomatic activism and the support from the Commission to hold on to her majority. To achieve that, she will continue to downplay the evident ineffectiveness of third country agreements in reducing arrivals. Recently, for example, Meloni has openly recognised that the complexity of migration policy makes achieving solutions more difficult for her government.
The gist of the alignment around the Mediterranean pivot lies in the failure to solve the responsibility sharing conundrum within the EU. In the short term, this strategy will likely continue to increase the costs for the migrants without reducing arrivals to Europe. Italy and the EU are likely to downplay these fundamental issues to convey the message that the Union can devise joint solutions. In the long term, though, this strategy is likely to make the EU and Italy more strategically dependent on their neighbours in a region of great strategic interest.
(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)