European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni recently visited together the tiny Italian Mediterranean island of Lampedusa – one of the main arrival points for migrants from North Africa.
It was an odd sight. Meloni, who depending on the news outlet, was going to do some mixture of the following after her election last year: bring fascism back to Italy, lead a nationalist, anti-EU government, an anti-immigrant government, or a government that didn’t blindly follow NATO.
And there was Ursula the Great who was issuing thinly veiled threats to Meloni’s incoming government last year:
🇪🇺 The European Commission is willing to work with any democratic government across the bloc but has the “tools” if things go in a “difficult direction”, Ursula von der Leyen has said in response to a question about Italy’s upcoming elections. pic.twitter.com/A8nHdwplWj
— euronews (@euronews) September 23, 2022
Meloni and von der Leyen have made nice after Meloni caved in every conceivable way, and here they were talking tough on the immigration issue. Von der Leyen’s visit came on the heels of the anti-immigrant firebrand Meloni quietly backpedaling on this issue as well.
Meloni, despite railing against immigrants, is increasing the number of work permits to non-EU nationals in an effort to boost the supply of cheap labor.
Mattia Diletti, a politics professor at Rome’s Sapienza University, describes it this way:
“The government is clearly not delivering what it promised, but the ruling parties are still seen by their electorate as much more reassuring than the left on immigration, so they are not feeling pressure in the opinion polls.”
Put another way, the Meloni government is providing an outlet for economic frustration (blame the immigrants) while simultaneously continuing the neoliberal war on labor that has been the bane of Italian workers’ existence for the past quarter century.
Earlier this year Meloni chose May Day to announce her government’s promotion of short-term worker contracts, as well as the abolition of Italy’s basic income program, which provided the unemployed with an average of 567 euros a month. Despite the program providing a mild stimulus to the economy, Meloni said its elimination will force people back to work. “Where is the slump in the economy and employment?” she asked.
By bringing in more foreign workers and eliminating the paltry basic income, the Meloni government is attempting to force workers to compete over a limited number of low-paying jobs. This has been the strategy in Italy ever since it joined the EU:
Exporting became more difficult as the real exchange rate appreciated when Italy entered the Eurozone. Downward pressure on real wage growth due to intensified cost competitiveness strategies dampened household consumption. Investment declined as the economic outlook deteriorated and as privatisation promoted a decline in the number of large firms in crucial sectors from the 1990s onwards. And the constraints on fiscal policy led to a decline in the growth contribution of public expenditures, as Italy was forced to run primary fiscal surpluses to meet the European fiscal rules and appease investors.
The results have been disastrous for Italian workers:
Annual net income of the Italian household, which was €27,499 (at constant 2010 prices) in 1991, declined to €23,277 in 2016—a drop in median living standards of 15%. Mean net household income fell by €3,108 between 1991 and 2016 or by about 10%. Italy is the only major Eurozone country that, in the past 27 years, suffered not stagnation but decline.
A major concern in Italy is how immigrants are used to undercut wages, which are already at subsistence level. Roughly 40 percent of Italian workers earn less than 10 euros an hour in the country where average wages have fallen 2.9 percent since 1990. The country has incredibly low wages and no minimum wage, and the oligarchs (and their politician Meloni) want to keep it that way. While Italians try to scrape by on low salaries, foreign workers can be paid even less.
According to the 2020 IDOS Statistical Dossier on Immigration, the overall average monthly wage for foreign workers was 1,077 euros in 2019, which was 23.5 percent lower than that of Italians’ 1,408 euros. That gap is only widening in Italy, as well as the EU. In the agricultural sector in particular, migrant workers are subject to various forms of abuse and live and work in inhumane conditions.
That is, of course, precisely why Italian oligarchs demanded a certain flow of immigrants. Italian big business welcomed the increase, but immediately said more will be needed to tackle a longstanding demographic decline. In Italy, and elsewhere in Europe, the argument goes that demographics require more and more foreign workers.
Let’s unpack that a little, though, putting aside the possibility that one key reason people don’t have as many children is low wages and the high cost of living. According to Eurostat, Italy’s employment rate stands at 60.1 percent, which is now dead last in the EU after being overtaken by Greece.
Meanwhile, masses of young Italians under 35 are emigrating abroad as their employment prospects are so dismal at home. So Italians leave searching for higher wages and immigrants come in to fill low-wage jobs. Nationalism it ain’t – unless one conceives of the nation as solely a profit extracting mechanism for oligarchs.
It would instead appear that a Europe-wide bait-and-switch scheme is underway as parties with fiery anti-immigrant positions take power only to backtrack on the issue. Since the neoliberal politicians of the center-left have been so thoroughly discredited across Europe, it is now the right’s turn to keep advancing the great EU neoliberal project. They do this by being more uncouth in their comments on immigration while pursuing much the same policies of their predecessors.
In Finland and Sweden the story is similar.
It was predicted that Finland would impose austerity and cut immigration under its new four-party coalition government, including the nationalist Finns party that took power in June. So far, they’ve got the austerity part down, but following through on immigration has thus far proved more difficult.
Finland is suffering from a worker shortage. A big part of the problem is low wages that Finns refuse to work for. The new government believes that if benefits are slashed enough, people will be forced to work for a pittance, hence some of the austerity measures doing just that.
Finland, like Italy, doesn’t have a statutory minimum wage, with employers and trade unions making collective agreements on sector-specific pay. Finland’s unemployment rate is 7.2 percent. Real wages declined by 7.8 percent from the first quarter of 2022 to Q1 2023.
So far on the immigration front, the government is withdrawing benefits for immigrants and generally making them second class citizens. The government is tightening the conditions for obtaining residence permits and citizenship while also attempting to halve the number of refugees that are admitted.
At the same time, it is aiming to strengthen work-based immigration that dovetails nicely with its changes to working life that benefit employers and weaken the position of workers and trade unions.
The government is fulfilling the wishes of capital interests despite previously making a show of being opposed. From Deutsche Welle:
Innovative solutions are already afoot. American multinational firm Microsoft is offering a 90-day “micro-degree” intended to plug a shortage in technology experts and hopes the initiative may bring in some 100,000 professionals within five years. And Nokia CEO Pekka Lundmark recently engaged in a Twitter spat with Finnish far-right leader Riikka Purra, after the politician claimed migrant workers were “economically detrimental.”
Of course, the austerity measures being enacted by the government could end up reducing immigration due to the negative impact on the country’s economy. Helsinki is considering becoming a “sanctuary city” and highlights the conundrum facing the country:
City officials are grappling with how to attract low-wage workers to the capital while housing costs are rising and the new right-wing government plans to cut housing subsidies.
Sweden’s current government that includes the nationlist Sweden Democrats has been getting all the attention for its efforts to reduce the number of asylum seekers coming to the country. They want to make it more difficult to obtain residence permits on humanitarian grounds.
On economic grounds, if it’s good for Swedish business, the gates are open. Here’s Sweden’s Migration Agency:
In the budget and policy specification for 2023, the Swedish Migration Agency received a mandate to promote highly qualified labour immigration. In order to fulfil this task and to overhaul the entire work permit process, the Swedish Migration Agency has decided to introduce a new model for handling work permit cases and to establish international recruitment units. In particular, the new model promotes the recruitment of employers seeking to hire highly qualified workers from outside the EU, but it also aims to shorten the processing time for all labour market cases.
There are the same demographic arguments in Sweden as in Finland and Italy and elsewhere across Europe. Meanwhile, the Swedish unemployment rate is 7.7 percent and real wages declined by 8.4 percent from Q1 2022 to Q1 2023. Sweden has no minimum wage.
These parties pay lip service to nationalist causes while pursuing similar neoliberal policies to their more refined liberal counterparts. The one minor difference might be that the latter have a more WEF-globalist outlook while the putative nationalists cater more to their country’s oligarchy.
For now, it looks like it’s up to the putative nationalists to carry on the EU neoliberal torch, since the center left has been so thoroughly discredited and faces more fallout from the Ukraine fiasco.
Davide Monaco at the University of Manchester department of politics had this interesting paper last year titled “The rise of anti-establishment and far-right forces in Italy: Neoliberalisation in a new guise?” While it is focused on Italy, it can increasingly be applied to elsewhere in the EU as well. His argument boils down to the fact rightwing governments “can further neoliberalisation processes together with a mix of anti-migration and welfare chauvinist measures” and that “far-right parties can advance ‘nation-based’ neoliberalisation processes.” Here’s the real nut of the argument:
The peculiar experiment of anti-establishment and far-right forces in power is best understood against the backdrop of the post-2011 developments, which laid bare the limitations of austerity-based strategies in building sufficiently large and lasting class alliances. Thus, while essentially maintaining the core (neoliberalising) labour market policies of the past, a little additional fiscal room was deployed for measures intended for social groups that had been marginalised during the crisis, namely self-employed and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) mainly located in the North (flat tax and tax amnesty), precarious classes in the South (RdC), and older (male) workers (Quota 100).
Moreover, the anti-migration and welfare chauvinist posturing should be viewed as serving the purpose of attracting support from sections of the working class and the petty bourgeoisie by pitting them against the ‘Other’, while hiding an unwillingness to challenge structural socio-economic inequalities. At the same time, welfare chauvinism continued to foster a workfarist logic premised upon the distinction between people ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ of the (supposedly scarce) resources available for social protection, albeit in its nativist variant prioritising Italians as the ‘deserving poor.
That sounds pretty accurate. The question is how long can such a strategy paper over the deep economic discontent in the EU? 66 percent of the EU working class feel their quality of life is getting worse. So far, voters have gotten fake nationalists that remain within the boundaries laid out by Brussels. What happens when they demand the real thing?