Europe’s weary shores

The European Union’s Mediterranean countries, which have often served as a barometer of the EU’s health in the run-up to European elections, currently find themselves accounting for five years of significant events: the COVID-19 pandemic, the energy crisis and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Yet domestic political realities in the region will play the predominant role in the outcomes of this round of European elections.

The far right is now taking root across the Mediterranean, as it is all over the continent – indeed, these may be the first EU elections to see uniform voting patterns throughout Europe. The Mediterranean countries face a plethora of common issues, from the worsening freedom of the press in Italy and Malta (the latter has dropped six places in the global press freedom index to 84th out of 180 countries), to policies heavily focused on disregarding the Green Deal in order to appeal to Mediterranean farmers who have suffered the effects of unprecedented drought. Beyond these, there are various challenges related to internal politics and the general fragility of the region’s political systems. Further weakened by the economic crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, the region’s polarised electorates will express their frustrations by voting for a different idea of Europe – one inclined towards the extreme right.

But there is one issue that unites the Mediterranean countries more than any other: migration. In April 2024, the interior and migration ministers of the MED5 group – Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Malta – met in the Canary Islands to discuss the implications of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum. The agreement offers a fresh set of reforms aimed at modifying the so-called ‘Dublin Regulation’, which has sparked heated debates and criticism since its implementation, particularly from European countries that are first points of entry for asylum seekers.

The European Parliament elections will take place from 6–9 June, almost at the onset of summer. With the arrival of the warmer season, departures from the Tunisian, Moroccan, and Turkish coasts will resume, and the death toll is expected to rise accordingly. The EU’s Mediterranean countries are poised to embark on a new chapter in migration management. However we have already witnessed what lies ahead: increasingly closed borders, geopolitical cynicism, and neglect towards the plight of migrants. This will be the leitmotif that galvanizes the rightwing electorate and is likely to result in the most right-leaning European Parliament to date.

Italy

In January, the European Council on Foreign Relations forecasted that populist forces are likely to emerge victorious in nine out of the 27 European Union member states, with Italy accompanied by Austria, Belgium and the Czech Republic, among others. The far-right ruling party, Brothers of Italy, has positioned Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni as its lead candidate. However, Meloni will certainly relinquish her position in the run-up to the European elections, since it conflicts with her role as head of government.

Brothers of Italy is relying heavily on the personal appeal of its party leader and adopting a more institutional tone than in the past – unlike another far-right party, Matteo Salvini’s Lega, which previously espoused a more extremist rhetoric. However, the past months of governance have brought to light worrying trends concerning press freedom, echoing similar developments in other European countries with far-right governments.

The 2024 World Press Freedom Index reveals that Italy has slipped to 46th position, five places lower than in 2023. As such, Italy is the sole western European country to enter the Index’s ‘orange zone’, alongside Poland and Hungary, where the process of curtailing press freedom has been underway for some time. Political pressures on the Italian media have increased over the past two years. The USIGRai trade union, representing Italy’s national public broadcasting company Rai, recently called a strike in protest against attempts by executives and directors to influence and censor journalists, allegedly to appease the Meloni government. A glaring instance of such activity was Rai’s censorship of the Italian writer Antonio Scurati’s monologue on 25 April, the day Italy marks its liberation from Nazism and fascism.

The monologue described Brothers of Italy as a ‘post-fascist leadership group’ and accused it of attempting to ‘rewrite history’ by disregarding both the Italian Resistance and antifascism. Rai executive Paolo Corsini denied allegations of censorship, claiming that the decision was based on disagreements over Scurati’s fee. However, an internal Rai communication published by La Repubblica appears to confirm a real act of censorship, explicitly citing ‘editorial reasons’ for Scurati’s monologue being spiked.

Brothers of Italy belongs to the European Conservatives and Reformists Group in the European Parliament, alongside the Polish Law and Justice party. In its manifesto, Meloni’s party asserts that member states should not be compelled to accept illegal immigrants against the will of their citizens, and sharply criticises the concept of ‘mandatory solidarity’ proposed in the New Pact on Migration and Asylum.

The early years of Meloni’s government have resulted in a series of highly restrictive decrees relating to asylum seekers, especially after the shipwreck off the coast of Steccato di Cutro in Calabria in February 2023, which claimed the lives of at least 94 people. The Italian prime minister’s hardline stance has generally been met with approval from European leaders, particularly in the fight against irregular immigration, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and French President Emmanuel Macron.

The relationship between Meloni and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán is bolstered by their endorsement of ‘family values’, hostility towards immigration, and a combative approach to the ‘bureaucrats in Brussels’. Meloni’s softening of her stance on EU integration, especially in the last months, is linked to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen’s attempt to garner support from certain rightwing parties, particularly Brothers of Italy, in anticipation of a second term. With the outcome of the European Parliament elections seemingly predetermined, the risk of ‘Orbanisation’ – particularly when it comes to freedom of expression – is tangible.

Greece

A survey conducted across European Union countries in April 2024 for the Franco-German television network ARTE Europa reveals that seven out of ten Europeans believe that their country ‘accepts too many migrants’. According to 85% of respondents, the EU should combat irregular immigration more forcefully. On average, 53% also indicated that immigration is a problem for their own country. In Greece, this figure was 62%.

Migration in Greece has been a hot topic for many years. A new route has opened up between Tobruk, a port city in eastern Libya, and the Greek islands of Crete and Gavdos. Since the beginning of 2024, the two islands have recorded a combined total of over 1,300 arrivals, matching the numbers seen in Chios and Kos in the Aegean Sea. The asylum seekers are predominantly from Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan, but Syrians and Palestinians have also been recorded.

Under these tense circumstances, Greek far-right parties are finding fertile ground on which to propagate their anti-migrant agenda, alongside other policies. One such party is Greek Solution. Founded by Kyriakos Velopoulos in 2016, it won 12 seats in the Hellenic parliament last year and is likely to enter the EU Parliament. The party is currently polling closely behind the centre-left PASOK and radical left party SYRIZA, with differences of less than 3% in some instances.

These European elections will be a litmus test for the country’s traditional parties. The drop in SYRIZA’s popularity in the polls, coupled with the growth of the social democratic PASOK, has paved the way for a potential change in the status quo and, in the long run, initiated a process of collaboration among parties on the left that could ultimately lead to a coalition government.

For New Democracy, the centre-right party led by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, it will be the first test after the double electoral parliamentary triumphs of May and June 2023, which not only solidified his party’s political dominance but also caused a series of rifts within the opposition, especially on the left. Success in the EP elections will be about the ability to manage three domestic policy issues.

The first concerns a scandal in which a number of journalists and political opponents of Mitsotakis had their communications intercepted through the illegal use of Predator spyware. The second issue concerns the train crash in March 2023 that resulted in the death of 57 people, sparking public outrage and indignation. The incident exposed years of government mismanagement of substantial European funds. While the government and parliamentary majority attempted to evade accountability, the European Public Prosecutor’s Office initiated an investigation into railway officials for the delays in executing infrastructure upgrade contracts. These upgrades could have prevented the head-on train collision.

Finally, there is the revolt in the agricultural sector, which in recent years has overwhelmingly voted for New Democracy. All those issues are considered by the government to be significantly more important than migration. However, last April, the Greek migration ministry was fined for data protection breaches in its migrant camps. In a statement, the Hellenic Data Protection Authority stated that the fine had been imposed due to ‘serious shortcomings’ in the ministry’s compliance with data protection rules. The fine, amounting to about €175,000, is the largest ever imposed on a Greek government body.

Spain

In Spain, the European Parliament elections will follow two important regional elections in the Basque Country and Catalonia. The EP elections will be dominated by domestic issues, namely the stability of the government led by the Socialist Pedro Sánchez (PSOE), who recently decided not to resign after corruption allegations involving his wife. Even at the European level, the other parties will try to shape their electoral campaigns around this. One of the rising stars is Isabel Díaz Ayuso, one of the most popular leaders of the People’s Party (PP), member of the European People’s Party.

Bolstered by its victory in Andalusia 18 months before the general elections, the PP’s greatest success has been to become the first conservative party to stem the rise of the far-right party Vox. It has done this by campaigning for economic freedom and the protection of Spanish unity in the face of regional separatism. The PP aims to double its seats in the European elections at the expense of Santiago Abascal’s Vox. Díaz Ayuso has also attracted votes from Vox by leading a cultural battle against leftwing parties and advocating for tough measures against immigration.

In contrast to the rise of the far-right across Europe, Vox lost 600,000 votes in the last general elections. For the EP elections, the far-right party could find significant support from the agricultural sector, whose vote it is competing for with the PP. Spanish farmers have faced a multitude of challenges, from plummeting prices to escalating expenses, stringent regulations and the adverse effects of climate change, which is particularly pronounced in Spain. The agricultural sector has also had to contend with intensified competition from inexpensive foreign imports exempt from stringent EU standards, which Spain’s farmers perceive as unfair.

On the left, parties like Sumar and Podemos are positioning themselves as advocates for human rights and pacifism, especially in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, the credibility of these parties is undermined by recent corruption cases that have come to light, both in the PP and the PSOE. Isabel Díaz Ayuso’s partner has been reported for tax fraud, having received millions of euros in commission for the sale of masks during the worst period of the pandemic. In the Socialist party, one of the top advisors to former Transport Minister José Luis Ábalos pocketed millions of euros in a similar case.

Portugal

‘Chega is the party of God, homeland, family… and work,’ said André Ventura, leader of the far-right party, echoing a famous Salazarist slogan, during a congress held at the end of 2021. Today, half a century after the Carnation Revolution, Chega has quadrupled its seats in parliament. The party’s rise has been driven by a sense of abandonment in rural areas, swift demographic changes due to an influx of immigrants in regions previously untouched by such shifts, and widespread perceptions of corruption among political elites. For those who expected Portugal’s exceptionalism to resist the nationalist and far-right drift seen in other European countries, the outcome of the legislative elections on 10 March 2024 confirmed a trend aligning Portugal with the rest of Europe.

As the European elections approach, domestic political issues seem to outweigh union-wide matters. European elections have not generally sparked particular interest among Portuguese voters. However, on 7 November 2023, António Costa, who had been prime minister for over seven years and emerged from the 2022 elections with an absolute majority, resigned after facing investigations for abuses and corruption related to certain projects involving lithium and hydrogen extraction activities. Consequently, the environment has become the battleground on which Portuguese parties and coalitions are advancing their agendas for the European Parliament.

The Socialists are aiming to seize the opportunity by proposing a Green Industrial Strategy, a plan that would enable the selective and specialised use of public funds. Unlike the Socialists, the environmental proposals of the centre-right coalition Aliança Democrática mainly focus on waste and water resource management. However, the coalition has become a target for Portuguese activists. In late February, the coalition leader and president of the Social Democratic Party, Luís Montenegro, was hit with green paint in a protest action claimed by the student group Greve Climática Estudantil.

Most of the proposals from the far-right party Chega, whose role will be crucial in determining the outcome of the upcoming elections, align with those of other ultranationalist European formations: combating what Chega’s leader calls ‘punitive environmentalism’, supporting recent farmer protests against the European Green Deal, and advocating for greater national sovereignty on these issues. According to the polls, Chega is third in the running, which translates into an electoral estimate of 15% and three to four MPs. However, there are some surprising measures in Chega’s climate and environmental programme: the party is advocating for the fight against fast fashion and for the elimination of VAT on reusable menstrual products. The plan also includes over 15 proposals concerning animal welfare, including the incorporation of respect for animal dignity into the Portuguese constitution.

Malta

On 10 April, the same day that the European Parliament approved the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, Maltese waters were the scene of yet another Mediterranean migrant tragedy, when eight people drowned 30 miles from Lampedusa. A few days later, the interior and migration ministers of the MED5 group (Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Malta) met in the Canary Islands to discuss the implications of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum. Minister Byron Camilleri emphasised the importance of increasing efforts to combat traffickers and smuggling networks, thereby preventing often-fatal irregular journeys. ‘Thanks to the efforts made by the Maltese government in recent years, both externally and internally, the number of irregular arrivals has steadily decreased. At the same time, the rate of repatriation has gradually increased. Last year, the equivalent of 83% of irregular arrivals were repatriated to their country of origin as they were not entitled to asylum’, said Camilleri.

Malta enters the European elections as the EU’s fourth-strongest economy, thanks mainly to its well-developed service sector: over a quarter of the twin-island nation’s GDP is tied to tourism, followed by financial services (approximately 15%) and gaming (12%). Construction is also booming, with new buildings cropping up everywhere; it’s a country of cranes and open construction sites. And it needs labour, preferably low-cost. The recent rise in inbound migration is attributed to former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, who in a June 2014 speech expressed his ambition to transform Malta into the ‘next Dubai’. And like Dubai, the exploitation of migrant labour is making the Maltese economy one of the strongest in Europe. In December 2024, Al Jazeera shed light on the injustices of this mechanism.

At the same time, the anti-migrant rhetoric persists, with sea rescues conducted by NGOs being described as ‘pull factors’ for migrants. On 5 January, Byron Camilleri expressed his full agreement with the new Italian decree that provides for fines and even the seizure of NGO ships.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the government in Valletta is in lockstep with Giorgia Meloni’s Italian government on this matter. As early as 12 November 2022, a joint statement by the interior ministers of Italy, Malta and Cyprus, together with the Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum, denounced the activity of ‘private ships’. This, they claimed, was not ‘in line with the spirit of the international framework on search and rescue operations’ because these vessels would ‘act independently of the competent authorities’.

These are the same competent authorities that have been refusing to coordinate rescue activities for years, delegating interventions to Libya or Tunisia, and often obstructing the intervention of private actors such as merchant ships and NGOs, as reported by several organisations. For Malta as well, priorities revolve around domestic political issues, and it has a tendency to sit on the fence when it comes to the issue of migration.

Cyprus

Last September, the streets of downtown Limassol, the second-largest city on the island of Cyprus, were rocked by anti-migrant unrest, when hundreds of masked individuals violently targeted businesses owned by foreigners. Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides condemned the violence, suggesting that the acts were conducted by a group of  criminals with no connection to the migration situation.

Yet the far-right National Popular Front (ELAM) party, led by Christos Christou, is gaining increasing support and makes no attempt to conceal its anti-migrant narrative, asserting that the country cannot accommodate any more refugees. According to polls for the European elections, the nationalist Elam party could become the country’s third most powerful political force after the two governing parties, which would allow it to secure one of Cyprus’s seats in the Strasbourg parliament for the first time.

The number of refugees seeking asylum in Cyprus has surged in the last decade, reaching a peak of 21,000 in 2022. Although this number has decreased in the past year, almost 27,000 asylum applications are still pending, and according to Cypriot authorities, 6% of Cyprus’s population are asylum seekers. The services tasked with handling the migration flow on the island are overwhelmed.

Nonetheless, Cyprus remains one of the main destinations for migrants using Mediterranean routes, and arrivals are expected to increase with the onset of summer. In addition, the ongoing conflict in the Middle East is likely to trigger new waves of refugees. The upcoming European elections will therefore test the effectiveness of anti-migrant rhetoric. Meanwhile, Cyprus has suspended the processing of asylum applications from Syrians following a sharp increase in arrivals in April. This moratorium is being used as a pressure tactic aimed at urging the EU to designate certain parts of Syria as safe areas.

Conclusion

Often perceived as distant from the heart of Europe and as victims of European austerity politics that for years have hindered economic development, the Mediterranean countries now find themselves leading and promoting aggressive policies capable of stirring up the emotions of weary and disillusioned electorates.

A wide range of political parties are attempting to satisfy these jaded voters, aiming to bring their national issues to the heart of Europe. While the European Mediterranean serves as a haven for millions from the world’s poorest and most disaster-stricken regions, for its residents, it is a fortress to defend – from the waves of men and women trying to cross it daily, and from the perceived siege of a Europe seen as vague and abstract, far from the daily needs of Mediterranean people.

After decades of systemic crisis, the result is a surge in far-right movements across the region. United in their intent, they seek to erode democracy and an already fragile economy with nostalgic slogans and ultraliberal policies, driven by a vision that scarcely extends beyond their own four walls.

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