Giorgia Meloni and Rishi Sunak’s Anti-Migrant Line Is the New Mainstream

Giorgia Meloni and Rishi Sunak’s extremist views on immigration are quickly finding foothold among European centrists, in a desperate, xenophobic attempt to create political blocs ahead of the European elections in June.

Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni and her British counterpart Rishi Sunak attend Atreju 2023, a conservative political festival, on December 16, 2023 in Rome, Italy. (Alessandra Benedetti / Corbis via Getty Images)

“She never backed down even when the fight was hard.” Speaking in Rome on Saturday, British prime minister Rishi Sunak evoked his predecessor Margaret Thatcher — while also flattering his host Giorgia Meloni by comparing her to his Tory heroine. Sunak suggested that the Italian premier was applying a Thatcherite legacy to new challenges: for today “we have to apply Thatcher’s radicalism to illegal immigration.”

Many commentators highlighted the warm relations between the pair, with Sunak’s appearance at the meetup held by Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia party “returning the favor” for her attending his otherwise widely deserted artificial intelligence summit in London. Where three years ago a Tory MP was reprimanded for featuring at a far-right gathering in Rome with similar speakers, today Sunak embraces Meloni as a like-minded conservative.

Sunak is no outlier in this regard: while Meloni’s party has a fascist heritage and promotes “Great Replacement Theory,” its commitment to Euro-Atlantic institutions has acquired it a stable place in the EU center right, ever closer to the Christian democratic European People’s Party. The “radicalism” evoked by Sunak is now mainstream. When Meloni visited London in April, Sunak’s team even sought her endorsement of his plan to send rejected asylum seekers to Rwanda, regardless of their country of origin. She obliged, even claiming that the word “deportation” simply doesn’t apply to the removal of migrants who arrived illegally.

Nearly three years after the activation of Brexit and the transformation of the UK’s border regime, we can look with hindsight at the road taken: and it is indeed a Roman road, Sunak is correct about that. With the increase of people attempting to enter by sea crossings — in part due to Brexit, but also the vast oppression in Calais — the British state has turned to well-known tools of border enforcement, including letting people to die at sea, bilateral deals with countries of emigration, and the criminalization of alleged “people smugglers.”

This isn’t just in Britain. This summer, Meloni headed to Tunis as the figurehead of “Team Europe” with Dutch premier Mark Rutte and EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. “Team Europe” was about securing the Tunisian state’s help in policing migration across the Mediterranean — an outsourcing of repression to third countries with poor human rights records that is now common EU policy. Since 2016 similar pacts were made with first Turkey and then Libya. Faced with fights among EU countries over the internal distribution of migrants, the bloc has conformed around a “Fortress Europe” line with hard external borders. The deal with Kais Saied’s Tunisia, however, has substantially failed, an endless pit of EU money that has neither protected migrants’ lives nor satisfied the Right’s desires to block departures.

Albania and Rwanda as Migrant Colonies

It was perhaps Meloni’s floundering, amid months of futile diplomacy with Tunisia, that led her to spectacularly announce another unworkable initiative, this time creating detention centers in Albania. Given its focus on outsourcing migration control to a third country it has a clear parallel with Britain’s Rwanda plan, in this case relying on a non-EU state that was once colonized by fascist Italy. The deal has gone over both countries’ parliaments, but nonetheless stirred up the right-wing base in Italy.

Albania’s premier, Edi Rama, also attended last weekend’s Fratelli d’Italia gathering in Rome, and forms an important third leg of the special relationship between the Italian and British premiers. He had already collaborated closely with the Tory government to block his own citizens from making the English Channel crossing, enacting a deportation plan that has effectively put an end to the 2022 Albanian maritime immigration to the United Kingdom.

Both plans rely on a clearly imbalanced relationship: both Albania and Rwanda are miniscule economies with vast net emigration (one third and one half of their populations, respectively), whereas both the UK and Italy are major capitalist powers. The relation is, arguably, neocolonial. Indeed, the Albanian opposition has not taken kindly to the proposal that the new detention centers, even while on Albanian territory, should be under Italian sovereign rule. In Rwanda, on the other hand, the opposition leader Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza has fiercely criticized the plan as essentially British rubber-stamping of the political oppression and forced disappearances enacted by the East African state.

Second, whereas the deals previously cut with Turkey and Libya (and the attempted one with Tunisia) focus on countries of transit, these new deals with Albania and Rwanda do not focus on their own citizens or people passing through (even if we can read a certain overall complicity between the three to halt working-class mobility). The Rwanda deportation plan, first presented by then premier Boris Johnson eighteen months ago, proposes to deport people arriving irregularly in the UK from the channel crossing, and detain them in Rwanda while British authorities assess their claims. The Italian plan is similar, but instead of promising to deport people who have already arrived on Italian dry land to a third-party country, proposes that ships rescuing people at sea should be redirected to Albania and held in the centers while their claims are assessed. The details of how this is meant to work — plagued by judicial and practical problems — are not public, and probably do not exist.

What would these deals really mean in practice? In both instances they would close down one of the few ways by which working-class people from outside the EU can obtain documents, i.e. entering irregularly, claiming asylum and then proving integration — for example, because they study, work, or have a family in their new country. The British and Italian plans for stopping people from making asylum claims on sovereign territory are not only a policy of deterrence, but an attempt to cut off the means by which people who do arrive can try and stay.

Imprisoning the Boat Drivers

Sunak and Meloni have also adopted an identical rhetorical focus on the exploitation of migrants by people smugglers. Unwilling perhaps to follow the Trump line of explicit racism, like many before them they claim to be protecting migrants’ lives by criminalizing anyone who facilitates illegal entrance. But this is a bluff: so long as Europe and the UK erect barriers to legal entrance, organizations and individuals will continue to facilitate illegal arrival, whether for humanitarian reasons, profit, or a little of both.

The scapegoating of boat drivers historically has worked on both the Right and the Left. For the Right, it works as a “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” approach to border control, uniting racism with sadism. For center-left parties, however, the strategy has also often been used in reaction to death of migrants at sea — a line recently expressed by Britain’s Labour Party following a maritime disaster in the English Channel. As with Sunak and Meloni’s smiling Instagram statement, this also often relies on a deliberate confusion between “human traffickers” and “people smugglers,” pretending that anyone who assists a border crossing must be some kind of cruel and violent abuser.

There are currently around one thousand migrants in Italian prisons for people smuggling, the vast majority of whom have simply been accused of driving a boat. Meloni’s government has introduced new laws making sentences even harsher. The British government, meanwhile, has battled in the courts to establish its priority is to prosecute small boat drivers, even if this means infringing international human rights law. Over the past few months, a new round of summits — whether the “global war on smugglers” announced at the UN, or the EU’s “Global Alliance to counter people smuggling” — are attempts to overcome the thorny issue of migrants’ freedoms by prioritizing their right to protection from the smuggler bogeymen.

European Impact

The Sunak-Meloni line also has a wider impact on European politics, ahead of EU elections set for June 2024. Indeed, far from a nationalist outlier without influence in Brussels, Meloni’s position should be understood in terms of the Italian right’s increasing success promoting a Europe-wide perspective, rather than simply bickering over which states receive which migrants. In the days of far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini in 2018–19, Italy was a supporter of reforming the Dublin regulation, which has asylum claims assessed in migrants’ country of arrival. Italy insisted that other EU member states should help it out by taking in migrants who first arrived at its shores. But last year, Meloni changed the line, accepting that (Eastern) Europe has done much to accept Ukrainian refugees, and that Italy’s role now will be to shield Europe from any entrances by sea at all.

Rome, like London, sometimes claims to be saving lives by stopping people even attempting to make it to the EU, instead hardening the borders of peripheral countries in order to thwart people before they try to cross the Mediterranean. Such humanitarian concerns are transparently an effort in political marketing — and also ease Meloni’s increasingly warm relations with the European People’s Party, the mainstream center-right group to which European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen belongs. Yet nor should it be assumed that their aim is to prevent migration altogether. Rather, what we are today seeing is an expansion of the repression of migration, sometimes in exchange for allowing a few lucky (and/or richer) non-Europeans to arrive as guest workers without rights of citizenship.

This is the basic reality behind the major new pieces of migration legislation passed not only by these overtly right-wing governments but also across the continent. This week in France, Emmanuel Macron’s government passed new migration legislation, limiting migrants’ access to welfare benefits, setting caps on potential arrivals, and limiting family reunification. The bill — which also had a “humanitarian” angle insofar as it allowed a conditional regularization for a minority of migrants and had exemptions for economic sectors with labor shortages — only passed thanks to the support of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National.

Similarly, the Council of the European Union reached a “historic” New Pact on Migration and Asylum this week. This not only maintained the basics of the Dublin principle against which reformists have campaigned for years, but also it highlighted the need to maintain hard external borders, and to show “solidarity” with “frontline” southern and eastern states who receive the most asylum applicants. The New Pact was criticized by the Left and Green groups in the EU parliament as well as Amnesty International, which noted that the “streamlined” applications procedure de facto means more detention of people at borders, funding countries outside the EU to detain asylum seekers, and indeed allowing states to opt out of human rights protections in “emergency” situations.

It would seem then that the apparent extremism of Meloni and Sunak’s views is quickly finding foothold among European centrists, in a desperate but racist attempt to create political blocs ahead of the European elections in June.

Yet even their own kitsch mythologies point toward the futility of their rabid support for prisons and borders, and specious wrath against people smugglers. The Rome event that Sunak and Meloni addressed was, formally, an annual gathering of the youth sections of the Italian far-right party. Founded by Meloni herself in 1998, this “Atreju” meetup is named after the young, combative male protagonist of the fantasy novel and film The Never Ending Story, a tale of a magical world threatened by a mysterious force called “the Nothing.”

If Italian fascism once relied on a tragic mix of technological warfare and manipulated myths, today’s version is farcical, with two prime ministers giving a pep talk to a meeting named after a 1980s fantasy film on how to fight, quite literally, nothing. Or rather, a story about their phony but bloody war against the non-European working classes — a weapon to divide and distract Europe’s voters during the class war being waged against themselves.