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Italy’s rightwing prime minister admitted on Sunday that she had not been able to fulfil her campaign pledge to curb the inflow of irregular migrants, calling migration “the most complex phenomenon I’ve ever had to deal with”.
Yet Giorgia Meloni assured supporters at a far-right political festival in Rome, also attended by Elon Musk and UK prime minister Rishi Sunak, that she is still seeking answers to an issue that became a major mobilisation point during her years as an opposition activist.
Reducing migration is a central focus for her voters, including those who at the weekend attended the latest edition of a festival she first organised in 1998 as a youth activist in a political movement started by surviving allies of Benito Mussolini.
“I know well that on migration the results are not the ones expected,” Meloni told the crowd at the conclusion of Atreju, a four-day jamboree organised by her far-right Brothers of Italy party. “But I’m not interested in short-cuts that pretend to solve the problem for a while.”
Populist parties across Europe are capitalising on public concern about a surge in the number of irregular migrants arriving in the EU since early last year. The far right won a shock victory in Dutch elections last month and anti-immigration parties are on course to make strong gains in European parliament elections next summer.
In Italy, more than 153,400 people have arrived from across the Mediterranean without permission so far this year, up from 98,600 at the same time last year — an embarrassing reality for a politician who had pledged to take any steps, including a naval blockade, to stop the inflow.
Meloni, who took office in October 2022, said she was “ready to pay a price” in terms of lost popular support for her inability to deliver quick results, but would take the time needed to create “a real, structural, definitive answer to this problem”.
She added that her government would look to make a range of deals with other countries, such as a recent agreement with Albania to process asylum seekers trying to enter the EU. “This is not a phenomenon that a [country] can handle on its own unless it builds a network of alliances,” she said.
When it started, the Atreju festival was a motley gathering of far-right youth activists from Italy’s political fringes — a chance to network among their own, and try to spread their ideas beyond their tight-knit circle. In more recent years, speakers have included Donald Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon and Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán.
But with Meloni’s party now in power at the head of a three-party coalition government, this year’s festival — held in the garden of Castel Sant’Angelo near the Vatican — felt more like a slick corporate gathering, or the rightwing government’s own office Christmas party. Stages for debate were surrounded by a Christmas market, an ice-skating rink and a Santa’s village, though children were few in number.
Meloni’s own roots in a neo-fascist movement were swept to the sidelines too, as Sunak gushed about their shared values as “the only two centre-right leaders in the G7,” of which Italy assumes the presidency in January.
In his own appearance, Musk, who met Meloni in Rome earlier this year, urged Italians to have more children, as he expressed concern about the continuing fall in new births. He said higher immigration should not be considered as a potential solution to a declining birth rate.
“Italy is the people of Italy — the buildings are nice but what is Italy? Italy is the people,” Musk told attendees. “I do worry about the low birth rate. If a company is going to invest in Italy, you have to say ‘Will there be enough people to work there?’”
In her own remarks on Sunday, Meloni said her government would battle to reverse the deepening demographic crisis. The workforce is shrinking as the population ages rapidly. But echoing Musk, the prime minister, who has one daughter, said migration could never be the main answer.
“While the left thinks the problem can be solved through migration, we want to solve it by helping Italian families above all to have more children,” she said. “Children are the hope of any society.”
Additional reporting by Ben Hall