Luciana Lamorgese was barely known outside of Italy‘s bureaucratic circles until last week – but this is about to change.
The 65-year-old technocrat has been thrust in to the centre of the country’s political drama, having been chosen to replace Matteo Salvini – the leader of the far-right and anti-migrant League party – as interior minister in Italy’s newly formed coalition government.
A migration specialist who worked for the interior ministry for decades, Lamorgese stands out as the only non-political figure in the cabinet assembled last week by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
In her new role, she is expected to lead efforts aimed at softening a series of hardline anti-immigration policies after Salvini’s controversial measures inflamed a national debate surrounding migrants and further polarised the country.
“It’s a decision to restore the rule of law in domestic affairs and to better regulate immigration,” Professor Daniele Fiorentino of Roma Tre University said of Lamorgese’s appointment.
“It’s a message to nationalists – such as Salvini – and the European Union”.
On paper, the appointment of Lamorgese, a southern lawyer without a Twitter account and a record of rare public appearances, marks a clear departure from her predecessor, a rambunctious populist who during his time in office turned his anti-migrant social media rants into legislation.
Last month, hoping to capitalise on his rising popularity, Salvini sought to trigger a snap election by pulling the plug on a fractious 14-month governing coalition between the League and the populist Five Star Movement.
But his gamble backfired when his former coalition partners smoothed their differences with the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and formed an unlikely alliance.
During the negotiations, the PD’s leader Nicola Zingaretti made clear his party’s line by calling for a “radical change” on the approach of the previous administration, which saw the Five Star Movement partnering with the League to pass controversial bills that stripped asylum seekers of key protections and banned entry to rescue vessels.
In the end, the Five Star Movement and PD found middle ground by agreeing to review the so-called Security Decrees – which left migrants stranded at sea for weeks – in line with an earlier recommendation by President Sergio Mattarella.
“The security decree has transformed humanitarian activities into a crime,” said Giorgia Linardi, spokeswoman of the Sea Watch NGO.
But even though she welcomed the formation of the new government, Linardi called for concrete action to allay concerns that the emergence of new figureheads would simply result in a change of style – rather than substance.
“The new coalition marks for sure a step forward, but we got used to too many words and few facts,” Linardi said.
“I don’t think we can call the establishment of a new government a victory as long as people keep drowning into the Mediterranean”.
And in a move that appeared to reinforce activists’ fears, Lamorgese on September 5, just hours after being sworn in, rubber-stamped an entry ban to the Alan Kurdi charity vessel which had 13 rescued people on board.
Fiorentino, the director of Roma Tre University’s political science department, said those in the new governing alliance seeking a shift from the previous administration’s approach would face “numerous” obstacles.
“Not all the members of the new coalition want to make an about-face in immigration policies,” he said. The prospect for change “depends on how, and to what extent, the government will be able to impress a significant turn in the public opinion’s perception of the immigration issue.”
In July, 59 percent of Italians backed Salvini’s so-called “closed ports policy”, a survey conducted by IPSOS on behalf of the Corriere della Sera daily showed.
According to Matteo Villa, a researcher for the Migration Programme at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), Salvini used media to cultivate fears of a presumed “migrants invasion” each time a vessel approached Italian waters – even though sea arrivals have plummeted by 80 percent since July 2017.
“If the media exposure of those who promote a tough policy against migrants decreases, then also the perception of the phenomenon itself changes,” Villa said.
“This suggests that if the new government will likely adopt a more subdued tone on issues related to migrants and promote a moderate migration policy, ‘fears’ will reduce together with the government’s exposure to criticism”.
But even if Salvini’s security decrees were to be revised, this would only scratch the surface while failing to resolve the core issue, according to Salvatore Fachile, a lawyer of the Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI).
“Salvini’s policies are just the tip of the iceberg of an approach that is in line with the EU’s immigration policy [that is] based on blocking migrants instead of allowing them the chance to seek protection,” Fachile said.
He added that that approach – based on establishing cooperation mechanisms with the refugees’ and migrants’ countries of transit, rather than their country of origin – culminated in a 2017 memorandum between Italy and Libya’s United Nations-recognised government in Tripoli.
“That memorandum marked a practical and ethical shift in what used to be Italy’s humanitarian approach to migration,” Fachile said, adding that since then, Rome has been merely following in the EU’s footsteps.
“We need a change in EU policies – not just cleaning up Salvini’s sensationalism – to witness a real change.”