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Scapegoating the EU Won’t Fix Italy

The populist parties that comprise Italy's new government owe their electoral victory to emotionally satisfying but logically unsound arguments about the role of the European Union in their country's travails. Now that they are in power, they will have to confront the fact that Italy's most pressing problems are its own creation.

BRUSSELS – Italy is making international headlines again. In the country’s election on March 4, the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) and the right-wing League party captured a combined parliamentary majority by tapping into the public’s discontent over immigration and economic stagnation. Now, M5S’s Luigi Di Maio and the League’s Matteo Salvini have formed a new government. Despite their differences, both place most of the blame for Italy’s problems on “Europe” – meaning European Union rules and shared principles.

The perception among Italian voters that the EU has left them alone to deal with the problem of migration from Northern Africa is not particularly surprising. Of the hundreds of thousands of migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean from Libya in recent years, the vast majority land in – or are rescued and brought to – Italy. Most are in fact economic migrants, but they present themselves as refugees because that is the only legal way to stay in Europe.

Even so, Italian populists are simply wrong to claim that Italy is absorbing a disproportionate and unfair share of asylum seekers. In reality, some 400,000 asylum applications have been submitted in Italy since 2014. This represents about 11% of the EU total of 3.9 million, which is roughly equivalent to Italy’s share of the EU’s total population.