In a story that didn’t receive much coverage in the United States, the Chancellor of Austria announced last month the need for a new alliance of nations within the European Union. Standing beside the Interior Minister of Germany, Horst Seehofer, he called for an “Axis of the Willing against illegal migration.” (Politico) The countries involved are to be Germany, Austria and Italy. Of the three nations, only one leader has not signed onto the idea: Angela Merkel of Germany. As mentioned previously on TNB, she has been facing internal challenges from Seehofer over immigration but has, as yet, kept him in check.
Conte, of Italy, is a proponent of the idea which is promoted by his Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. Salvini is the leader of The League party, a hardline nationalist / anti-immigrant party. (TNB)
Purely from a political standpoint, calling any three-nation group that includes Germany and Italy an “Axis” is problematic. When it includes factions that are staunchly nationalistic, for expansion of government welfare, and have issues with racism, it becomes moreso.
It is, in fact, so obviously a political misstep that one must question whether it is a mistake at all, or whether it is intended to imply associations with the historical Axis powers. From Modern Diplomacy :
This choice of words raised a few eyebrows, as a previous “Axis” between those three countries carries much darker historical undertones, as does former US President George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing” in Iraq. But the Austrian chancellor didn’t seem to care.
There is no chance that President Trump was not briefed on this situation. It should have in no way dampened his enthusiasm to host Conte at the White House; Conte is among Trump’s strongest supporters in the EU, and certainly the strongest supporter among the G7. Under no circumstance, however, should Trump have praised either Conte’s immigration policy or his nationalism. In the current climate, it would be a grave error, a signal that he was in accord with the ideas promoted by a new potential Axis.
Trump said at the start of his meeting with Italy’s Giuseppe Conte that the country’s new populist government “has taken a very firm stance on the border.” The president said other European countries should follow Italy’s lead on migration issues.
“I agree very much what you’re doing with respect to migration, illegal immigration and even legal immigration,” Trump told Conte in the Oval Office.
This was a bad decision.
On the same day the press conference happened, Italy’s Interior Minister tweeted a quote that was designed to conjure images of Mussolini. (CNN) Some of Salvini’s supporters are thrilled, in that he showed defiance to the traditionalists of the Italian society… he “made heads explode”. Other supporters of Salvini are thrilled because he is seen to be channeling Mussolini, and they wish a return to the days of Fascism.
The tensions in Europe are real, and we should be seeking to aid the many leaders who are trying to alleviate them. We should be encouraging our allies to break away from the paths that led, in the past, to widespread destruction. Instead we are encouraging them along those paths and raising the prospect that we might choose to walk beside them.