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Sunak’s political romance with anti-migrant Italian PM

The two leaders now see each other as key allies, particularly over tackling small boats reaching European shores

Chris Stevenson
Wednesday 13 December 2023 14:39 GMT
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Related video: Sunak says UK and Italy aligned as he welcomes right-wing Meloni to London

Having survived a revolt over his government's plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda – for now – Rishi Sunak has been pencilled in to head to Italy this weekend, as a surprise guest at a political festival run by Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni’s hard-right Brothers of Italy party.

The appearance would cement a political relationship that has blossomed in 2023, centred around the issue of immigration. Both leaders have been under pressure to deal with the number of arrivals on their country's shores, and stopping the boats has become a central pillar of their pitch to voters. More than 145,000 people have reached Italy by sea so far this year, a sharp increase on the 88,000 the previous year. In the UK, around 28,000 people have crossed the channel in small boats, compared to 45,000 in 2022.

In appearing at the Atreju festival, Mr Sunak would be following in the footsteps of former Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon and Hungary's far-right prime minister Viktor Orban. Elon Musk is also set to make an appearance at the annual festival, which Ms Meloni founded in 1998 as an event for Italy's hard-wing youth when she was still on Italy's political fringes. Over the years, politicians from across the left and right have come to court potential voters at the festival, and this year Ms Meloni will be celebrating the first year of her ruling coalition.

With Mr Sunak still facing major splits in his party over his immigration strategy, the prime minister may yet decide to stay at home, with the Financial Times reporting that plans had been laid for him to travel to the event in Rome. His attendance at the event “depends on other commitments”, one source told the newspaper.

Sunak and Meloni consider themselves ‘two of the closest friends in Europe today’ (AFP via Getty)

Ms Meloni and Mr Sunak see each other as important allies in trying to forge a common European approach to tackling irregular migration. In April, during a meeting in Downing Street, Mr Sunak said that the two countries were "very aligned" in their values. In October the pair co-chaired a meeting on migration at the European Political Community (EPC), which brings together more than 40 European nations, and also jointly penned an opinion article calling for tougher action to stop "smugglers and traffickers" driving people onto boats.

“We’re proud that Italy and the UK are leading on this together, because in this, and many other areas, our perspectives and our goals are the same,” they wrote. “In fact, we are two of the closest friends in Europe today.”

Meloni and Sunak, centre, host a meeting on migration at the European Political Community summit in October (Getty)

Last month, Italy signed a deal with Albania to build two migrant centres to house and process those rescued at sea by Italian boats. It is the first deal of its kind struck between an EU member country and a non-EU state, and bears many similarities with Mr Sunak's Rwanda plan. The centres would be under Italian legal jurisdiction, constructed at Italy’s expense, and are expected to open by spring 2024. The centres will hold up to 36,000 people once opened.

Mr Sunak has faced opposition within his party to the possibility of the UK's Rwanda plans breaching international law, but Italy's foreign minister, Antonio Tajani, has been at pains to point out that the deal with Albania will be in line with EU and international regulations.

“The migrants will have exactly the same treatment as foreseen under Italian and European regulations,” Mr Tajani has said. “There is no outsourcing of the processing of asylum applications to a third country.” He added that asylum seekers and migrants picked up at sea by NGO ships, or those that arrive on Italian soil will have their applications to stay dealt with in Italy.

With Italy taking over the presidency of the G7 in 2024, Ms Meloni will continue to be a key ally for Mr Sunak. Indeed, the Italian prime minister was the only G7 leader to attend a summit on artificial intelligence AI hosted by Mr Sunak at Bletchley Park last month. Ms Meloni is also concerned about the disruptive influence of AI on the labour market, which is likely part of the reason tech billionaire Mr Musk has also been invited to the Atreju festival this weekend.

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