Sustainability and political opportunity: the invisible common ground in the Italian problem


Irish Naval rescuing migrants as part of Operation Triton, 2015

Italy's populist government recently called for migrant search and rescue boats to be pulled back. MARC BRIGHTMAN argues the country's social and economical problems are best addressed together as issues of sustainability

The problems of migration, unemployment and economic stagnation should be treated together as part of a single problem, which can only be usefully framed in terms of sustainability.

The formation of a populist government in Italy has been causing disarray among policymakers and policy advisors working in a framework that has not assimilated advances in interdisciplinary sustainability science.

Their discussions are dominated by the prospect of a clash of interests between Italy’s agenda, dominated by unemployment and irregular migration, and the lack of political will among northern countries to bend budgetary rules or accept more refugees and asylum seekers.

They are missing an opportunity to exploit the common ground of sustainability to agree on reforms for Italy and the other member states in a way that could even provide the foundations for a renewal of the European project in line with ecological goals.

Popular discontent

On May 6 I attended a roundtable event on the ‘political crisis in Italy and the Eurozone’ at the European University Institute. Four prominent experts in the field of European policy, and especially economic policy, presented their thoughts: Stefano Bartolini, Henrik Enderlein, Ramon Marimon, and Jean Pisani-Ferry.

They agreed on a fair diagnosis of the immediate problem that the new Italian government represents for Italy and for its relationship with the rest of the EU: it is an expression of popular discontent with two decades of economic stagnation and high unemployment, and its flagship programmes of tax cuts and handouts pose an unprecedented challenge to the European project because they are impossible to fund without borrowing beyond the limits allowed by EU fiscal rules.

What is more, it is now politically impossible to force through the further austerity measures that would be required to address Italy’s national debt problem, which is hampering growth.

One by one, each panelist openly confessed to having very little idea of how to address the problem. Henrik Enderlein rightly criticized the simplistic ‘solutions’ that some economists have proposed, such as the ‘more austerity’ or its opposite, ‘increased spending’.

But he candidly admitted that he did not know what should be done, and was only able to advocate a vague ‘mixture’ of supply side and demand side measures, without specifying what these should be.

Diverse economy

None of the panelists confronted the key political matter of migration, and instead appeared to reduce popular anxieties over migration to the question of economic stagnation and above all unemployment.

Their assumption appeared to be that if you can solve growth and unemployment, then people will stop worrying about migration. But, as the case of Hungary shows, a populist prime minister can also successfully exploit anti-immigrant sentiments for political gain in a context of strong growth and low unemployment.

Jean Pisani Ferry, a former advisor to French President Macron, argued that more business consolidation is the solution for modernizing the Italian economy, thus implying that it should follow France’s somewhat dubious example.

The problems of migration, unemployment and economic stagnation should be treated together as part of a single problem, which can only be usefully framed in terms of sustainability.

In fact Italy’s relatively diverse economy, with its range of small and family-run businesses, has afforded it a certain resilience in the long term; small businesses have given Italy the privilege of occupying a range of niches, thanks to the persistence of specialised artisans, an area which is indeed growing.

Global sustainability

For better or worse, there are also two sides to the coin of the level of irregularity in Italy: on the one hand, tax avoidance is rife, which erodes trust in the system while reducing the actual returns that are collected; on the other hand, there is a gigantic ‘shadow’ economy which, though illegal, helps Italy to survive economic crises.

Ramon Marimon inadvertently suggested a clue as to how to approach the Italian problem differently. He mentioned in passing the government’s inclusion in its programme of progressive measures for ‘greening’ the economy.

None of the panelists commented on this, and they consequently missed their chance to find a new way of framing their discussion in a way that could provide a policy context for agreement on other issues.

The ‘contract’ between the Lega and the Five Star Movement includes a focus on the circular economy, climate change and ‘sustainable mobility’ (green transport), and while these are not given much substance in terms of numbers or deadlines, they nevertheless express a clear consensus as to general policy direction that is in line with those of their northern European neighbours.

It would be worth attempting to put the Italian problem into the wider context of global sustainability. For instance, migration is a sustainability issue.

This is not just because climate change or environmental degradation may lead some people to migrate. Of more immediate significance is the fact that Italy’s birth rate is very low, while that of sub-Saharan Africa is very high – facts which amount to elements of a wicked problem that is reducible neither to changing territorial carrying capacity nor to evolving the demographics of economic productivity.

Global inequality

Migration should also be thought of in relation to the unsustainable trend of widening global social and economic inequality. As Hein de Haas has shown, migration has not increased globally in proportion to population – but what has changed is that wealth has become more concentrated in a relatively small number of countries, which have become favoured migrant destinations. Meanwhile, continued growth is known to be unsustainable on a global scale.

Global inequality may not bear a linear causal relationship towards migration, but it does seem to underpin the beggar-thy-neighbour attitude that increasingly prevails in wealthy countries towards migrants, leading to reductions in legal avenues for migration, which have been matched by proportional increases in ‘irregular’ migration, as migration scholars frequently point out.

The pattern of inequality in relation to migration is also evident on the Italian electoral map: the more vocally anti-migrant Lega has most support in the rich north of Italy, while the anti-system M5S dominates in the poor south, where the dramatic maritime arrivals of migrants occur (though this pattern also results from the Lega’s traditional antipathy to southern Italian immigrants, and from the deeper ‘anti-system’ sentiment skillfully exploited by the Movement in the south).

I know from my own fieldwork in Sicily and Calabria that anti-immigrant feeling does not dominate there. I have also found further evidence of the fact that environmental and social sustainability are best addressed together.

Common ground of sustainability

My research shows how small scale migrant reception centres in rural parts of southern Italy are offering a valuable opportunity for regeneration in a context of long term economic and demographic decline: in territories largely abandoned by the state and by their own youth, young migrants are studying, doing apprenticeships and taking up work that nobody else wants, giving local services like schools and buses a reason to continue to function. 

I suggest that an opportunity exists to exploit the common ground of sustainability in European negotiations to agree on reforms for Italy and the other member states.

Re-framed as a wider problem of social and ecological sustainability – as well as a problem of the sustainability of the European Union itself, the Italian crisis could even sow the seed of a renewal of the European project in line with ecological goals.

Sustainability is already a major policy priority area for the EU, and the framing of policies to address the problem of managing migration in terms of sustainability could make them more politically palatable.

For example, a special exception to EU fiscal rules could be made for borrowing and spending on green and sustainable investment – including sustainable migration policies such as ‘diffused’ migrant reception, which can help revive rural areas.

Valuable opportunity

The area of sustainability also offers a valuable opportunity to drive a wedge between European and American populism.

Trumpian populism is driven in part by the fossil fuel industry and its sponsorship of climate change scepticism, and this feature is not shared by continental European populism, which has not sought to undermine the Paris Agreement or other cooperation agreements on sustainability such as the Sustainable Development Goals.

Why is the common ground of sustainability invisible to so many economists and political scientists? Mainstream economists tend to see environmental economics and ecological economics as specialist areas.

Interdisciplinary sustainability science is rapidly growing but its influence remains marginal, partly because of the difficult challenge of working outside comfortable disciplinary silos.

But the problems of migration, unemployment and economic stagnation should be treated together as part of a single problem, which can only be usefully framed in terms of sustainability. Policy advisors should be jumping at this opportunity for political reconciliation and renewal.

This Author

Marc Brightman is co-director of the Centre for the Anthropology of Sustainability at University College London and co-author of The Anthropology of Sustainability: Beyond Development and Progress. He is currently a EURIAS ( European Institutes for Advanced Study ) fellow at the University of Bologna and visiting fellow at the European University Institute. This article first appeared on

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