“It’s a good start. But now the delicate negotiations are starting – negotiations that are complex and full of unknowns”. After a night of talks and contacts with Europe, Paolo Gentiloni is opting for realism. “The European Commission’s proposal on immigration should not be taken for a final decision. It’s a positive step, it establishes a new principle. Now, however, it’s up to member states. And we know well how strong the resistance is, including from important countries”.
It’s early morning and the foreign minister, in his office at the Farnesina, is waiting for the official seal to be set on a decision that he’s already aware of. He moves the focus to the summit meeting of internal affairs ministers scheduled for mid-June. That’s the key moment. It is on that occasion Europe will need to take action and show that it is “far-sighted and aware of the dramatic nature of the immigration situation”. That summit is where the majority must say “yes” to sharing quotas of immigrants.
Why are you doubtful?
I’m not doubtful: today things look good, then we’ll see. I’m aware of the resistance from some quarters to the idea that the European Union can impose quotas on individual countries. But the negotiations are getting under way now, the true game is being played out as we speak.
How do you judge the timid approach taken by France and Spain?
I don’t judge, I discuss the situation with them. And I think that a “no” from France and Spain would, frankly, be surprising. They are two great democracies with traditions of openness and respect of rights. How can they think of blocking a decision involving sharing at the European level just because it means they’d have to take in 6000 or 4000 migrants?
Would a “no” from the 28 be a severe blow for Italy?
For Italy, it’s not the Piave frontier [a line of defence in World War I]: this decision is more important for Europe than for us. Let me be clear: the Commission’s proposal and a “yes” from the 28 won’t solve the immigration problem, but it would certainly be an antidote for the Union’scrisis of conscience.
Could you explain that, Minister?
Before helping Italy, the Union would be helping itself to be Europe. Saying “yes” to quota sharing means moving on, in this field, from a period dominated by self-interest and the dictatorship of regulations to a period where we react together to political challenges.
So what is the message for Europe?
One: self-interest risks causing a great project to fail. Two: the awakening of the European conscience cannot be completed in just a few weeks. Three: on immigrants and reception, Europe must make an almost symbolic contribution. We’re talking about just 10% of the immigrants landing on our shores. Small numbers, but a decision that counts for a great deal.
Less than 10%?
Numbers are numbers: last year 170,000 immigrants arrived and the Commission’s proposal talks of relocating 24,000 of them for Italy, over two years. That means 12,000 a year – less than 10%.
The proposal only applies to immigrants who have arrived since April. Will Italy be the only country thinking about the nearly 100,000 immigrants who arrived before then and are now in our country? And has it got the strength to do so?
Last year we took in 170,000 immigrants. We can take in that number this year too. But it will be hard. The reception system is a burden on our public finances and Europe could provide a response and share the responsibility on this too.
Will you be asking for more funding?
Europe is a super power. Giving a few hundred millions of euro to help countries engaged in the front line in taking in immigrants certainly wouldn’t create a gaping hole in its budget. That too will be a measure of how much of a will there is to respond to the emergency by considering it European and not just Italian or Greek.
Brussels is allocating 60 million; for 2015 alone Italy has already assigned more than 800 million.
Europe does well to point out that the funding for Frontex has been tripled, but we must all be aware that we have tripled an investment starting from 3 million a month. At present, the EU is spending 9 million a month for Frontex, which amounts to just over 100 million each year. Today that’s no longer sufficient. Today the contribution to the countries dealing directly with immigration could be around several hundred, not tens, of millions. Not least because – and I stress this point – we are talking about a European question and the response cannot just come from Italy and Greece.
Is there a solution to the immigration drama?
The solution lies in managing and regulating immigration without drama. Anyone who imagines that migration flows between Africa and Europecan be eliminated simply doesn’t understand the world. Demographic trends and the economic gaps tell us that migration from Africa to Europe will be with us for years to come. The challenge is to take action on the causes, reduce and regulate the flow. We can’t pretend to Italians that migration will go away just by blocking the boats and throwing thousands of desperate people fleeing wars and poverty back into the sea.
Is time on our side?
Over time, the economic gap between Africa and Europe will diminish and that will be a driving force in reducing the flows. Twenty years ago we were talking about boat people, and today we aren’t. We experienced immigration between the two shores of the Adriatic, and today Albanian immigrants are no longer filling the stadium in Bari. Stability and economic growth in a given region lead to the phenomenon being governed.
Do you really believe that?
Things change with historic processes. A few days ago the Mexican foreign minister explained to me that the flows of migrants crossing the US-Mexican border essentially balance each other out: the same numbers are leaving as are entering. This hasn’t happened because the United States built walls too high to climb, but because the economic conditions in Mexico have changed and the country is experiencing a period of impressive economic growth. But now let me underscore another point: immigration has positive aspects, immigrants are a resource. Because there are some jobs that Italians no longer want to do, and because the money that worker-immigrants send back to their home countries is one way to help those countries take a tiny step forward.
Just think what Salvini would say…
Anybody can engage in whatever anti-immigrant propaganda they like. It’s a currency that’s circulating in Europe right now. But a government like ours doesn’t spend that currency, it doesn’t use it, it doesn’t transform that currency into money for election campaigns.
When will we see a UN decision on action against the migrant-smugglers?
The dynamics at the United Nations Security Council are not swift and they are not simple. But we’re working on a text that will be submitted by the United Kingdom. We’re in constant contact with the Russians, Chinese and Americans and this work could lead to a positive result.
On 2 June, the summit of foreign ministers of the anti-IS coalition will take place in Paris. Do we stop terrorists through the use of weapons?
The military response is already under way: the coalition is intervening with air raids, not with military personnel on the ground. We’re fighting terrorism but we’re also dealing with the consequences of the period of American interventionism. Late 1990s, George W. Bush. That period brought military victories, the removal of tyrants, but also the destruction of any structure, including political, in the countries concerned. The end-result cannot be considered a positive one.
What plan might take shape in Paris? What’s the strategy?
Iraq, which wants to defeat IS, cannot rely solely on the Shia militias. It needs to work to ensure that they are joined by the regular army, the Sunni community and the Kurds. If this turns into a war between Shia militias and IS we run the risk of handing the consensus of the Iraqi Sunni community to the terrorists and that would be a dramatic error. So the challenge in Paris will be: to multiply the help for the government in Baghdad and multiply the pressure to involve the Sunnis and Kurds.
Terrorism and Christians suffering persecution are two sides of the one drama, something that the world seems not to understand.
Italy understands, and Pope Francis’s repeated calls have awakened consciences. But on this point too we have a duty to be honest, to tell the full truth: the emergency hasn’t gone away. In Iraq and Syria the situation is complicated, IS is advancing and the reaction is timid. And in the meantime the more remote and smaller Christian communities are living through a dramatic situation for which there is perhaps no solution. It will be terribly difficult to heal the wounds and restore a future to people who have lost their homes and their land. Those communities need to be supported and helped, in the knowledge that even a military victory over IS will not be enough to automatically give them their future back. Only a stable peace can restore serenity to the Christians of the Middle East, whose presence is vital for the future of the region.