Libya Crisis Widens Fault Lines in Italy's Populist Government

(Bloomberg) -- The military conflict in Libya is fueling a new war of words among Italy’s leaders, deepening tension inside the populist government amid risks of an escalating humanitarian crisis.

Matteo Salvini, deputy prime minister and leader of the coalition member League party, is insisting that Italian ports will remain closed to refugees crossing the Mediterranean even if the Libyan conflict worsens. That puts him at odds with Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio as well as Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who want more flexibility for the country’s response.

Libya Crisis Widens Fault Lines in Italy's Populist Government

At least 6,000 refugees are set to embark for Italy, among them women and children, Corriere della Sera newspaper reported on Sunday, citing an intelligence report delivered to the prime minister.

The Libyan National Army led by General Khalifa Haftar is fighting for control of Tripoli, where the United Nations-recognized government sits, as separate power centers in the east and west of the country struggle for influence. The conflict is likely to create a new wave of refugees seeking shelter in Europe, with Italy being one of the favored destinations.

Conte on Friday formed a “crisis cabinet” to coordinate Italy’s response to the situation and exhorted his fellow political leaders to show unity and avoid “untidy comments and dissonant voices.”

His appeal had little effect on Salvini, who said less than a day later that he wouldn’t consider reversing his decision to close the ports, no matter how much deeper the crisis gets. Di Maio quickly weighed in, saying such a decision is not Salvini’s to make.

“If refugees start coming and Salvini is unable to stop them, it would be a major problem for him, and this is something Five Star is willing to jump on,” said Giovanni Orsina, head of the School of Government at Luiss University in Rome. “But for now, this is not so very big. The alternatives to this alliance are difficult to envision and that’s why this government keeps surviving.”

Salvini’s tough anti-immigration stance has been a key to his rise to become Italy’s most popular politician. The League leader has insisted that he expects the coalition government to see out its full term despite repeated public clashes over issues ranging from tax cuts to infrastructure projects.

“Humanitarian emergency? That won’t change anything for Italy’s migration policies,” il Messagero quoted Salvini as saying. “People escaping war come to Italy by air with permission. The boats, the rafts, the pedal boats won’t arrive in Italian ports.”

Coalition infighting has intensified as the parties prepare to contest European Parliament elections in May. Salvini has also been exchanging public barbs with Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi, one of Five Stars’ most high-profile leaders, Il Messaggero reported.

Di Maio said the decision on refugees lies with the Prime Minister and the ministries of foreign affairs and defense, and not with Salvini’s interior ministry.

Salvini has also clashed with other political elites over his comments criticizing France for what he says is support for Haftar against the recognized government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.

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