When I first came to live in Italy in late 2007, a debate about immigration that had been simmering for years finally began to boil over. As the Prodi government staggered and fell, a coalition government, led by Berlusconi’s newly-branded People of Liberty (PdL) party took power. Instrumental to their success was the partnership of Umberto Bossi’s Northern League (LN), a party that had initially garnered attention in the early nineties with its breakway rhetoric. In recent years the League has turned its attention and substantial populist base to more electorate-friendly issues, federalism and immigration among them. As the immigration debate has grown more heated in the past three years, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni has become more of a public figure. This week, he weighed in on France’s controversial decision to ‘voluntarily’ expatriate almost 100 Roma or Gypsies back to Romania, their country of origin.
Maroni has come out in the Corriere della Sera saying that France ‘copied’ Italy and that Italy will go one step further this time. (As well as indulging in the usual political opportunism by pointing out that it was under former left wing Rome mayor Veltroni’s watch that these stringent policies were adopted.)
The League enjoys solid support all over the north particularly in the former Christian Democrat strongholds of Lombardy and Veneto. On the streets of Rovigo, a town in the Veneto that I’ve called home on and off for the past several years, things don’t seem that bad with regard to immigration: during last night’s evening walk I saw several teens of African descent out with their white Italian peers, joking and chatting colloquially, and at the pizzeria in isolated Granzette there were at least two groups of multi-ethnic diners downing beers and chomping enthusiastically on pizza. After the beating death of Abba Guibre in Milan last year, that’s good news.
But as anyone who has been to Romania, Bulgaria or Macedonia knows, the Roma often stand apart, even in their countries of origin. What France has done is shameful and contravenes EU law. A follow up to minister Maroni’s comments in the Corriere states as much, and the powerful CEI (Conferance of Bishops) in Italy has come out against France’s policy and Maroni’s braggadocio as well. Italy, for so long at the fringes of the EU, may have something to teach big brother France in this matter. Let’s hope so.