This is the new Italian face on immigration, and a grim, ugly start for the new left/right coalition government of Five Stars and the League. Interior Minister Matteo Salvini of the League is the public face of the policy. But the new Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is going along with it. And, as reported by Dominik Straub und Irene Brickner in Nach geschlossenen Grenzen nun auch gesperrte Häfen Standard 13.06.2018, the ban on letting the ship with people in distress rescued from the ocean, a illegal position in international law that is the way it is for good reasons, could not have been implemented without the consent of the Five Stars Transportation Minister.
This is not a question of national security at all. It's a very cynical, bad-faith posture by the Italian government seeking to exploit nationalist hatreds as a basic part of its political project. As Reuters notes, "The [Italian Prime Minister and the French President] confirmed a lunch meeting on Friday to discuss 'new initiatives' on immigration, a day after Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini announced an 'axis' with Germany and Austria to fight illegal migration." (my emphasis)
Salvini's talk has to be taken seriously, though like our American xenophobes, we can't assume they have any particular devotion to accuracy in their public claims. Austria does have an anti-immigrant government, a coalition of conservative Christian Democrats and hard-right Putinists, i.e, the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ), which has a formal "working agreement" with Putin's Russia United party. (Rechtspopulisten und Putin-Partei rücken enger zusammen FAZ 19.12.2016) The FPÖ/Russia United agreement commits them to the "strenthening of friendship and raising the young generation in the spirit of patriotism and joy in labor." Kind of an "Arbeit macht Frei" kind of thing, apparently.
But whatever political "axis" there may be among the Italian League and the Austrian governing parties, both Italy and Austria are EU members and both are still bound by general international law. In Germany, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, a rightwing leader from Bavaria who is from the CSU, one of the parties in Angela Merkel's national coalition, has been playing footsie lately with Austria's Christian Democratic Chancellor Sebastian "Babyface" Kurz on anti-foreign politics. But, for all of her government's failings on immigration issues - and the general impression in the US that Merkel is very pro-immigration is a mistaken one - she isn't making a "axis" with Italy to drown immigrants in the Mediterranean Sea. The strange courtship between Chancellor Babyface and is actually aimed politically against Merkel.
(Dont' even try to shoehorn the mixing of internal and external policies in the EU into the framwork of the discussion on the Russian meddling in the US elecitons; you'll just give yourself a headache.)
Not to understate what a prick Seehofer is being on the subject. He is claiming that as Interior Minister, he has the authority to turn back refugees at the border, Angela Merkel and international law be damned. (Asylstreit: CSU droht mit Alleingang und Ultimatum ORF 147.06.2018) So far, this looks more like a weird political stunt than an actual move on immigration policy. But I wouldn't want to underestimate the possibility of it turning into something worse.
Immigration and the eurozone are currently the two biggest threats to the future of the EU. Both have been hampered by nationalist posturing by EU countries. Although as the de facto leader of the EU, Germany, and Angela's Merkel's governments in particular, bear the heaviest responsibility for it. I think of the both as chronic crises, both of which hit acute turns in 2015. Both are currently "solved" by classic Merkel extend-and-pretend non-solutions, forcing Greece to become Bangladesh via draconian austerity policies, on the euro front, and by contracting out the solution of the Mediterranean refugee problem to Turkey, Italy, and Greece. Both are highly unstable solutions.
The sad part is that the general shape of realistic solutions are very clear. The eurozone either has to be unwound with a return to national currencies, or change it into an optimal currency area with a common budget, shared public debt obligations, and "transfer union" structures.
With immigration, the broad solution is also clear: stop supporting wars in the Middle East, whether by direct intervention, facilitating American or Russian intervention, or selling arms to belligerent parties; get real about the fact that mass immigration to Europe is for all practical purposes a permanent situation that requires a structured, systematic sharing of burdens, i.e., accepting refugees, including, yes, the richer countries like Germany and Austria; and, systematic development work in North Africa to provide safer conditions and better opportunities there. Did I mention that to stop supporting wars in the Middle East is a critical part of this? Oh, and getting emergency services in shape to handle entirely predictable future surges in immigration.
But the obvious eurozone and refugee solutions aren't being undertaken as they should be, largely because too many political parties and groups and business lobbies like weapons manufacturers in particular find it advantageous to demagogue the issues.
But reality does have a nasty way of catching up with wishful thinking and flat-out denial. Facts do matter, despite being singularly inconvenient for narrow nationalists and xenophobes. Turkey, Italy, or Greece could change the calculation overnight by just sending a bunch of the refugees they are holding to parts northward. That would be irresponsible in itself absent real practical agreements on how to do it. But Hungarian, Austrian, and German politicians would have to respond with more than slogans about "close the borders." Austrian Chancellor Babyface likes to claim credit for "closing the Balkan route," but that's a joke. Angela Merkel's agreement with Turkey is what mitigated the acute phase of the immigration crisis of 2015, not any whizbang diplomacy by Austria.
And there's this fact-based reporting from Straub und Irene Brickner, illustrating how cynical and dishonest it is for the Matteo Salvinis of the world to conjure up phony claims to justify xenophobic cruelty:
Frage: Wie viele Flüchtlinge haben die Mittelmeerstaaten heuer bisher aufgenommen?
Antwort: Italien hat in diesem Jahr bis zum 12. Juni insgesamt 14.441 Bootsflüchtlinge aufgenommen; hinzu kommen die 932 Migranten, die am Mittwoch von der italienischen Küstenwache in Catania an Land gebracht wurden. Insgesamt knapp 80 Prozent weniger als im Vorjahr. Spanien hat im laufenden Jahr bisher 11.308 Flüchtlinge aufgenommen, Griechenland 12.065. Es kann also keine Rede davon sein, dass Italien die ganze Immigration allein schultere. Wahr ist aber, dass die nördlichen Grenzen Italiens – jene nach Frankreich, in die Schweiz, nach Österreich und Slowenien – für Flüchtlinge seit langem faktisch geschlossen sind.
[Question: How many refugees have the Mediterranean states taken on up until now?
Answer: Italy has taken 14,441 boat refugees; that includes 932 migrants who were brought to land by the Italian Coast Guard in Catania on Wednesday. In all, 80% less than in the previous year. In the current year, Spain has accepted 11,308 refugees, Greece 12,1065. So that can be no claim that Italy is shouldering the whole immigration alone. But what is [true], is that the borders north of Italy - that to France, in Switzerland, to Austria and Slovenia - have in fact been closed to refugees for a long time. [my emphasis in italics]