Italy’s Love-In With Orban Makes No Sense

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- This week’s meeting between Viktor Orban and Matteo Salvini was a true love-in between the two populists. The Hungarian prime minister and the Italian deputy back-slapped each other, vowing to radically transform the European Union, first and foremost by halting illegal immigration. 

The leaders of the Fidesz and League parties talked of forming an alliance in the next European parliament to take on what they called the “pro-immigration” forces led by Emmanuel Macron. The French president promptly took up the challenge: “If they want to see me as their main opponent, they are right,” he said defiantly on Wednesday.

For all the smiles and friendly talk, Salvini and Orban have less in common than it seems. Once you move beyond the “stop immigration” rhetoric, it is clear that their interests on how to deal with the inflows to the EU are diametrically opposed. Italy should stop courting Orban and get mad at him instead.

For much of the past few years, successive governments in Rome have lobbied the rest of the EU to change its immigration rules — in particular, the so-called Dublin regulation that stipulates asylum seekers should be processed in the country where they first enter the EU.

The European Commission has proposed a more flexible system in which countries would be able to redistribute asylum seekers when the number of applications rises above a certain level. But this has been blocked by member states, with Hungary being among the staunchest opponents to mandatory relocations. At a European Council summit in June, Orban secured an agreement that any changes would be approved by all EU countries unanimously, giving him a de facto veto.

Since becoming Italy’s deputy prime minister and interior minister in June, Salvini has tried to force change at the EU level by engaging in a dangerous game of brinkmanship. Before he took office, Italy had been spearheading EU efforts to save migrants in the Mediterranean, welcoming rescue boats into its ports. He has now made this process harder. This month, he kept 177 migrants stuck on a coast guard ship in the port of Catania for days as he asked EU governments to take on some of them. With the exception of Ireland, none agreed — including, of course, his friend Orban.

Hungary is hardly the only country Italy has reason to complain about. Macron, Salvini’s nemesis, has hardly covered himself in glory over the migration issue, lecturing new Italian government about its hard-line stance without showing much willingness on his part to help.

Yet just as Italy’s interior minister attacks the French president over his hypocrisy, he shows a surprising understanding for Hungary’s stance.

“I believe it is Hungary’s right to defend the borders and the security of its people,” Salvini said during a joint press conference. Why Macron doesn’t enjoy the same luxury is anyone’s guess.

Of course, the two leaders would respond by saying that their priority is to stop immigrants from coming into the EU in the first place, rather than managing the arrivals. This is a line Orban repeated over and over during the meeting in Milan. The Hungarian premier will no doubt point to the hard line he took in 2015, when he ordered the construction of a 175-kilometer fence along the border with Serbia, and another on the Croatian border.

However, Italy is in no such position, even if it wanted. The Mediterranean is an un-patrollable border. Political instability is bound to persist on its shores, especially in Libya. As for the rest of Africa, conflicts, demographic pressures and persistent differentials in income with Europe will continue to push hundreds of thousands of people to seek a better future in the EU.

For all the frustrations of recent years, Italy would be better off continuing to cooperate with countries such as Germany rather than wasting time with Orban. He may provide a good photo-op, but under no circumstances will he supply much help.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ferdinando Giugliano writes columns and editorials on European economics for Bloomberg Opinion. He is also an economics columnist for La Repubblica and was a member of the editorial board of the Financial Times.

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