BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The failure of Italy’s neighbors to help out more with a huge influx of migrants boosted the anti-immigrant vote and contributed to the resounding defeat of its ruling party in last weekend’s election, European officials acknowledge.
But given the difficulty of persuading all EU states to take their share of new arrivals, officials in Brussels now believe the bloc will have to take a harsher line on immigration.
“The message we hear is: continue being very, very tough on asylum. Be tough as you can on immigration. And then get even tougher,” said a senior European Union diplomat.
Italy’s center-left Democratic Party won less than a fifth of the votes, losing to anti-establishment and right-wing parties that campaigned hard against immigration.
Under pressure from euroskeptic rivals, mainstream EU politicians read it as meaning they must take a hard line on immigration or risk losing power.
“Italy has, it’s undeniable, suffered for months and months under the pressure of migration. This very strong migration pressure is a context we should keep in mind,” said French President Emmanuel Macron.
About 170,000 refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean to Italy in 2014, according to U.N. figures. In the next two years arrivals were 154,000 and 181,500, before falling to 119,000 in 2017.
Italy and Greece bore the brunt of the influx as the EU struggled to manage a crisis that delivers daily reminders of its urgency.
African immigrants marched through Florence on Monday chanting “no more racism” after an Italian man shot dead a Senegalese street vendor earlier in the day.
On Tuesday, officials said 21 migrants were missing and feared drowned when a rubber dinghy and a wooden boat had to be rescued after setting off from Libya for Italy.
The crisis that reached a head in 2015, when more than a million people arrived in Europe from the Middle East and Africa, has shaken the EU and fueled a wave of anti-immigration and euroskeptic sentiment.
The EU has since agreed deals - criticized by rights groups - with countries such as Turkey and Libya, offering them money and other help to keep people away from its shores.
The bloc has tightened its external borders and asylum laws and is spending more in distant countries to stop people from heading for Europe.
The Italian vote means the EU will stay on this course, officials in Brussels say, turning itself into what rights groups call “Fortress Europe”.
In Austria, a government official said the vote was “another wake-up call” in support of the tougher migration policies advocated by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.
But behind the EU’s unity on the need to stop refugees and migrants arriving in the first place lies a more intractable problem.
While frontline states on the Mediterranean bore the immediate impact of the jump in immigration, and wealthy countries such as Germany and Sweden also took in large numbers, post-communist governments in the east refused to accept their share.
Rome and Berlin blamed nationalist governments in Poland and Hungary for failing to show solidarity when it was needed, while they still accepted the development money western nations send to the bloc’s poorer members.
“There is a problem with solidarity in Europe,” Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said in Dublin on Monday. “We are all part of the responsibility,” he said, referring to the eastern Europeans.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar agreed that the whole EU must assist those most in need.
Italy and Greece feel they have been left to manage on their own, while Germany, the Netherlands and France have pressed hard, if in vain, to break the resistance in the east.
Some in the west have proposed cutting EU handouts for the east but the ex-communist states hit back.
Commenting on the Italian election, Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Konrad Szymanski said EU pressure over migration could backfire.
“Today, the root of euroskepticism is in the founding members of the EU, while central and eastern Europe is a center of stability,” he said.
Poland and Hungary, as well as Slovakia and the Czech Republic, cite security concerns and the need to preserve the traditional make-up of their societies in refusing to accept refugees from the Middle East and North Africa.
“A quarter of people supported parties in favor of immigration, while three quarters backed parties against immigration,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said of the Italian vote. “It will remain that way across Europe over the next 10-15 years.”
Additional reporting by Padraic Halpin in Dublin, Andreas Rinke in Berlin, Francois Murphy in Vienna, Marcin Goettig in Warsaw, Gergely Szakacs in Budapest, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by Giles Elgood