Clash between Italian PM and Salvini heats up

Rome, Aug 17 (IANS) The feud between Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Matteo Salvini, the man who may be looking to replace Conte as Italy's head of government, heated up this week after Conte accused Salvini of "disloyalty" with an "obsession" of preventing migrants from entering Italy.

The high-profile clash between two of Italy's most high-profile figures comes amid a political crisis that could see the Conte-led government collapse. Salvini, who is one of Conte's deputy prime ministers, is also head of the nationalist, anti-migrant League, Italy's largest political party. He said last week that the League's alliance with the populist Five-Star Movement was "broken" and could not be repaired, Xinhua reported on Friday.

That paved the way for a confidence vote on the Conte government and, perhaps, snap elections that would select a new parliament that would reflect the growing support for the League.

In the midst of the crisis, Salvini contradicted Conte's work regarding the migrant rescue ship "Open Arms", which has been anchored off the southern Italian island of Lampedusa for days with 147 would-be asylum seekers on board.

Conte said the ship should be allowed to dock at Lampedusa and that he negotiated with six European Union countries -- France, Germany, Luxembourg, Portugal, Romania, and Spain -- to assure they were "ready to welcome the migrants" in their territory. But Salvini issued an order refusing to allow the ship to dock, sparking the outage from Conte.

"Dear Matteo," Conte wrote in an open letter to Salvini, published on social media. "I understand your ... obsessive concentration on addressing the issue of immigration by reducing the issue to a formula of 'closed ports'. You are a political leader and you are legitimately intent on constantly increasing your support."

Salvini struck back, defending his "closed ports" policy: "Without this firmness the European Union would have never lifted a finger, leaving Italy and the Italians alone," he wrote, also on social media.

The policies Salvini has put into place -- which also include threats of fines and the seizure of rescue ships, along with dramatic cuts to migrant integration programs -- have had a dramatic impact on the number of migrant arrivals in Italy.

According to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, some 248 migrants arrived in Italy between January and July of this year. That compares to 5,204 during the same period in 2018, which includes the period when Conte and Salvini came into power, and 38,747 who arrived during the equivalent period in 2017.

But critics of Salvini's policies note that those figures do not take into account the rising death toll of migrants who are not rescued or who are forced to languish at sea waiting for permission for their rescue ships to dock. Critics also wonder why Salvini continues to tighten rules against migrant arrivals when the flow of arrivals has already slowed to a small trickle.

"Salvini is clearly making the moves for political reasons," Federico Castorina, president of Cultura Democratica, a think tank, told Xinhua. "Conte is becoming more autonomous with time and with the government crisis he may think he has nothing to lose by standing up to Salvini. Since taking power last year, Conte has been a mediator and perhaps he now feels Salvini is going too far."

--IANS

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