Migrant tragedies—deaths at sea—are all too familiar in this part of the world. But the demise of a rickety boat called “Summer Love” late last month struck a particularly painful chord. It happened close to Italy’s southern coast—the vessel packed with migrants broke into pieces less than 10 feet from shore in Calabria. Bodies washed up on the beach. Among the more than seventy dead were said to be 20 children and those souls recovered were laid out in a gym near where the disaster occurred in coffins, the children in small white ones.
The stories of the dead—like that of a young mother from Pakistan who was desperately trying to reach Europe to obtain treatment for her disabled son—have touched people across the world. And now many, particularly here, are blaming the Italian government, saying its focus on stopping illegal or irregular migration has not stopped the phenomenon, but rather threatened life by hamstringing rescue crews who are now under new sets of regulations.
Italy’s first female prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, has reacted angrily to suggestions that her government has not been adequately shaken by the tragedy of “Summer Love” and is guilty in some way for failing to prevent it, saying the maritime authorities did not have information about the ship being in peril before it was too late.
“I wonder if there is anyone in this nation who honestly believes that the government deliberately let over 60 people die including some children,” Meloni said over the weekend, before the death toll climbed. “I ask you, looking into your eyes, if any of you think that the Italian government could have saved 60 people, including a child of about 3 years whose body was discovered today, and did not do so. Please, let’s be serious.”
This catastrophe is proving to Meloni’s first real public and painful challenge since taking office in October of last year. Until now, her path has been largely upward. By many accounts, she has been a solid, pragmatic figure, rather than the far-right ideologue many on the left and even center portrayed her to be.
“She’s proved many of her critics wrong, who warned Italy was about to fall prey to a far-right fascist regime if she was elected,” said Nick Farrell, Italy correspondent for the Spectator magazine, “which would be a threat to democracy in Italy and Europe. She’s not behaving in a fascist way and she is not trying to dismantle democracy.”
Italy’s new prime minister, a scrappy, passionate political player, at 47 is already a veteran in politics, having been involved since her teenage years. Meloni has consistently been an advocate of the right, some of which in Italy is derived from the dregs of Mussolini’s disbanded party. But the relatively centrist tone Meloni has struck so far as prime minister—perhaps out of political savvy and necessity, perhaps for other reasons—appears to be reflected in her solid approval rating of 55%.
Her party—The Brothers of Italy—is a party that got 27% of the vote in the general election last fall. That doesn’t seem like a big number, but Italy’s governments are coalitions and Brothers is the leader in this pack, as 27% was the most any party got. But from that 27% of the vote to now 55% approval suggests that Italians’ opinions of their current prime minister have evolved.
“I think people did change their mind about her—obviously. They see that Italy is stronger in the international debate. It seems she is acting well—she is leading the country,” said Emiliana De Blasio of Luiss University in Rome. “She has a third of the consensus now [referring to what Brothers of Italy pulled in recent polls]. Compared to what we are used to here, with the far-right in Italy that didn’t go past ten percent, thirty percent is a big thing.”
The famously Eurosceptic prime minister for now is playing nice with Brussels in part probably to ensure Italy, the biggest designated recipient of COVID recovery funds, gets its share of the cash. But Nick Farrell thinks big things are in store for her within the EU.
“She could be the next Angela Merkel. Traditionally Germany and France have called the shots in the European Union. Italy has always been very much of a junior partner to them,” Farrell says, adding that with the French president and German chancellor faring worse in polls, this could be Italy’s moment.
But for now, Meloni needs to deal with the tragedy that occurred at home. This is a story rocking Italy. It is fair to demonize human traffickers, as many are doing At this moment, and to say that these unseaworthy ships should not set sail, but simultaneously important to make sure human life at its most fragile is protected.
Meloni will take this issue up with her European counterparts later this month as it seems a continent-wide solution to the problem of perilous and unregulated regulation remains, after so many years, elusive.