Two weeks after Italy reacted with anger to Austria's deployment of troops and armored vehicles to the border between the two nations, while reactivating border controls at the Brenner Pass over concerns that Italy will be unable to handle the roughly 85,000 migrants and refugees who have entered the country so far in 2017, the Italian government has threatened to retaliate in way that assures an imminent migrant crisis as well as an escalation of tensions between the two EU nations.
According to The Times, an Italian minister and a senator have threatened to issue temporary EU visas to thousands of migrants in an effort to "resolve" Italy's escalating migrant and refugee crisis, which would then allow the refugees to travel north. The move, which has been described as a 'nuclear option,' would allow the nearly 200,000 migrants currently stranded in Italy, to travel across Europe using a Brussels directive loophole.
Paolo Gentiloni, the prime minister, is livid that the rest of Europe has refused to take its fair share of migrants and that they have closed ports to rescue ships as the number of refugees attempting the treacherous crossing from Libya to the Continent has surged.
Italy previously called on its EU neighbors to help with the escalating humanitarian crisis but it has been disappointed by their complete lack of action. The face off prompted former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to shock the European liberal establishment, when last Friday he released excerpts from a new book in which he said that "we need to free ourselves from a sense of guilt. We do not have the moral duty to welcome into Italy people who are worse off than ourselves" adding that "we need to escape from our 'do gooder' mentality."
Migrants disembark from the Medecins Sans Frontiers ship Vos Prudence after being rescued at sea, at Salerno's harbor, Italy, on Friday
Renzi also warned last Friday that Rome would look to curb funding to EU nations that had refused to offer help. "They are shutting their doors. We will block their funds," he said, sounding suspiciously like Turkey's Erdogan who has so far prevented a new refugee crisis in Europe by gating some 2 million migrants inside Turkey's borders.
One week later, not even Renzi's dramatic reversal has prompted a reaction from the EU, leaving Italy in the same place as before, which as a reminder is that due to its geographic location, Italy has been one of the first entry points for people fleeing from the south to reach Europe. More than 86,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean to Italy already this year, leaving the nation scrambling - and struggling - to cope with the huge increase of people fleeing north Africa.
Meanwhile, hundreds of asylum seekers are packed into overcrowded centers - dubbed 'human warehouses' by locals - scattered across small villages throughout the country. Mattia Toaldo, a senior analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told The Times: "If migrants continue to arrive and Italy decides to give them papers to cross borders and leave Italy it would be a nuclear option."
And since "Italians have lost any hope of getting help from the EU" they may say, "If you won't make it a common challenge, we will" Toaldo added.
This is precisely what some in Gentiloni's government are already doing: Mario Giro, Italy's deputy foreign minister, and Luigi Manconi, a senator with the ruling Democratic Party, told The Times that issuing migrants with temporary visas was under discussion. Giro believes that Italy can exploit European Council Directive 2001/55, developed after the Balkans conflict to give temporary European entry permits to a large number of displaced people.
Needless to say, if Italy pursues this course of action, and ultimately activates the "nuclear option", support for the Schengen scheme, which allows all EU citizens to travel freely across the Continent, may be in jeopardy. Worse, since for most of the migrants the final destination will be Germany, it may rekindle the same migrant crisis which at the end of 2015 saw Angela Merkel's approval rating plummet as her countrymen slammed her "Open Door" (since shut) policy.
The Italian rescue ship Vos Prudence arrives in the port of Salerno carrying 935 migrants, including 16 children and 7 pregnant women on Friday
The move will also drastically escalate tensions with not only Austria, but neighboring Frace, which have used dogs and the threat of armoured vehicles to push back migrants who try to enter through Italy's northern border. France 24 reports that perhaps in anticipation of such a move, vast white tents erected in a former military zone on the outskirts of the tiny village of Conetta, house some 1,400 men from across Africa, packed onto endless rows of bunks.
"I used to call this place a modern lager," Cona mayor Albero Panfilio told AFP, referring to concentration camps. The commune of Cona includes the little village of Conetta. "After two years this is (still) a place where human beings are squashed in together, with no hope for the future."
"Now I call it a human warehouse. The migrants arrive, they don't know where to put them, they have a warehouse, they dump them here." He added that the asylum seekers were treated "like garbage."
Meanwhile, 10 kilometers away, in Bagnoli di Sopra, 700 migrants are crowded into another former military base surrounded by barbed wire fences with no access to journalists.
Finally, a question emerges: with Europe helpless to prevent Italy from pursuing this path should Rome choose to do so, will Brussels activate its own "nuclear response" in retaliation. Recall that in 2011, a "united Europe" and the ECB removed then-PM Sylvio Berlusconi almost overnight when the former premier threatened to exit the Eurozone, by sending yields on Italian bonds soaring above 10%. While this time Italy's economy is (relatively) sound, should Rome proceed to dump 200,000 unwanted migrants in Europe's lap, the one certain response would be a financial one, with Mario Draghi sending a very clear message if not to his native country, then certainly the current government, which will immediately be blacklisted by Europe, with any and all measures taken to remove it.