June 26, 2018 / 3:27 PM / in 5 months

Echoes of Trump as Italy's Salvini gets tough on migrants

ROME (Reuters) - In less than a month as Italy’s combative interior minister, Matteo Salvini has won a reputation as Europe’s Donald Trump on immigration.

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini looks on during a news conference in Rome, Italy, June 20, 2018. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini/File Photo

An obsessive Twitter user whose “Italians First” slogan apes the U.S. president, he has barred ships with rescued migrants from docking at Italian ports, announced plans for a “census” of Italy’s Roma and taken on Europe’s biggest power, Germany, over immigration.

At a European Union summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, Rome is set to lock horns with Berlin again over how EU states should handle migrants and asylum seekers.

“Trump and Salvini are cut from the same cloth,” said Steve Bannon, who was chief executive of the 2016 election campaign in which Trump said he would get tough on illegal immigration and build a wall along the entire southern U.S. border.

The comparison is likely to please Salvini who, like Trump, rose to power on a reputation for being a no-nonsense leader ready to shake up the status quo and take on big challenges.

“There’s no easy solution on the southern border of the U.S. or for the migrant situation in the Mediterranean,” Bannon, who was also Trump’s chief strategist and a champion of the president’s “America First” agenda, told Reuters.

Immigration requires “direct action, no matter how messy it is” and Salvini’s action is “showing up the hypocrites in Brussels”, he said.

Trump, who met Salvini briefly in 2016, appears impressed. He complimented Italy’s “very strong” stance on immigration in a television interview earlier this month.

AGENDA-SETTER

Salvini, 45, became interior minister and deputy prime minister on June 1 as part of a populist government grouping the right-wing League, which he heads, and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement.

Though not head of the government, he has quickly emerged as the agenda-setter.

He could also hold the political fate of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in his hands if no deal is reached at the EU summit and demands set by her coalition allies are not met.

Salvini has told his European partners that Italy, a founding member of the EU which has long punched below its weight, will no longer be the bloc’s “refugee camp”.

Though migrant arrivals in Italy are down more than 77 percent this year from last, Salvini has targeted EU shortcomings on immigration while brushing off humanitarian concerns that his policies put lives in danger.

Italy has refused this month to let two charity ships carrying immigrants into port, with Salvini saying such vessels “cannot dictate Italy’s immigration policy.” He said on Monday that if it were up to him, the Italian coastguard would not respond to distress calls from migrant boats.

Salvini has called for migrant centers to be set up in Africa to stop asylum-seekers fleeing towards western Europe, and questioned the “rhetoric” around detention centers in Libya that have been criticized as inhumane by the United Nations.

On Monday he also called French European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau “ignorant” for taking him to task for closing Italy’s ports.

He also hit back when French President Emmanuel Macron described Italy’s move to shut the ports as irresponsible. France, Salvini said, had for many years turned back migrants at their common border.

Italy has seen 650,000 sea arrivals in five years, and is now hosting about 170,000 in shelters. Though numbers have dwindled, hundreds still come each month.

With Salvini leading the way, Italy has urged its EU partners to do more to shoulder the burden of taking in migrants, most of whom arrive at Mediterranean ports. Rome wants to drop rules stipulating that the first EU country of arrival is responsible for any asylum seekers.

But Germany, which opened its doors wide to migrants at the height of Europe’s migration crisis in 2015, wants greater powers for member states to turn away migrants and asylum seekers who have already have registered elsewhere in the bloc.

Salvini has refused this demand, intended by Merkel to help paper over cracks which are threatening the coalition government and her hold on power.

Italy is unlikely to achieve all it wants. But it could secure backing at the summit for Africa-based centers for people to seek asylum in Europe, and for more funding for the poorer countries on the continent that young people are abandoning in search of jobs.

RISING SUPPORT

A poll last week showed that two thirds of Italians agreed with the policy of blocking rescue boats from the ports, and the League’s support has nearly doubled in the last month. The League also built on its support at local elections this month.

Its rise is starting to cause tension with 5-Star, with some of the movement’s lawmakers criticizing the closed-port policy.

“Salvini’s style on immigration is working because the government is still in a honeymoon period,” said Luca Ricolfi, a sociologist and professor at Turin University.

But Salvini’s proposed “census” of Roma nomads will eventually backfire in terms of public support, he said.

“There is a strong similarity between the two, but Salvini is more moderate than Trump,” Ricolfi said.

Salvini transformed the League into a national force that won 17 percent of votes in March’s parliamentary election but is now polling at about 30 percent.

The man who founded the Northern League in 1989 was Umberto Bossi. When Salvini took over in 2013, the party was in disarray and haemorrhaging votes.

“It was inevitable that Trump would come along, just as it was inevitable that Salvini would come along,” Bossi told Reuters. A backlash against globalization created their brand of nationalism, he said.

Salvini’s decision to shut Italy’s ports “isn’t a solution, but it’s a beginning,” Bossi said.

Editing by Timothy Heritage

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