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Italy’s Conte begins to lose his lustre as second wave takes hold

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A year ago Giuseppe Conte was facing multiple domestic crises and in charge of an unstable government made up of two parties that had spent the previous five years as sworn and bickering enemies. Few in Rome believed he would last much longer than six months.

Twelve months on, and in the midst of a pandemic, to the surprise of many Mr Conte is still leading that rickety coalition between the Five Star movement and the Democratic party. But having won plaudits for his calm handling of the largest economic and health crises in Italy’s postwar history, he now faces the biggest challenge of his premiership yet.

Mr Conte, a quietly spoken law professor once derided as little more than a caretaker leader, is on course to become one of Italy’s top 10 longest serving prime ministers. In six months’ time he will have been in office longer than his predecessor but one, Matteo Renzi, an outcome most Italian pundits would have believed impossible last year.

“From the start of the [coronavirus] crisis, Conte’s communication strategy was to be very stark and honest with the country, and by doing this he embodied the authority that people wanted at the time,” said Valentina Gentile, assistant professor of political philosophy at Luiss University in Rome. 

On Sunday, buffeted by a second coronavirus wave that Italy had previously appeared to have been holding back, and with public unrest breaking out on the streets of the country’s cities, the prime minister delivered the type of frank television address that had endeared him to the Italian people during the first phase of the crisis. 

Protesters clashed with police in Rome © Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse/AP

But this time the reaction to new restrictions that included closing restaurants and bars at 6pm for a month was less sympathetic. Italy’s rightwing opposition seized on the new measures that heralded a return to a partial national lockdown as evidence that Mr Conte’s much lauded response to the first wave had in fact not worked.

As news emerged that Mr Conte’s trusted spokesman and spin-doctor, Rocco Casalino, had tested positive for coronavirus, Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-migration League party, took to Italy’s airwaves to condemn the measures, arguing they would further wreck an already battered economy.

Mr Salvini threatened to launch legal action to reverse Mr Conte’s decree, and said the closing of restaurants that had invested heavily in making themselves comply with anti-covid regulation was a betrayal. “Why take it out on them?” he asked. Mr Salvini posted social media footage of struggling restaurant owners explaining their plight.

Giorgia Meloni, leader of the opposition Brothers of Italy party, said Mr Conte’s government should immediately pay money to all of the businesses that would be damaged by the new measures. “Conte has the duty to apologise and compensate them,” she said. “It is not right to criminalise an entire sector after the state has given them certain prescriptions so that they can reopen safely.”

Daniele Albertazzi, a reader in politics at the University of Birmingham, said Mr Conte had benefited from being perceived as an outsider to the Italian political system in a country where suspicion of career politicians is deeply entrenched. 

“Like many other leaders in Europe, Conte has enjoyed [an] increase in popularity, but he has also played it well. He has grown and he has surprised people,” Mr Albertazzi said. “But this time is different to February or March. The economy is going to be hit very badly, and people are getting very tired of restrictions.”

The starkest demonstration of that fatigue came over the weekend when isolated rioting broke out in Naples, the largest city in Italy’s south, in reaction to the prospect of new restrictions being imposed. On Saturday evening a group of protesters, some linked to fringe far-right groups, threw objects at police in Rome.

Ms Gentile argues that Mr Conte remains in a strong position politically, in spite of growing disquiet in Italy over the second wave of the pandemic, because neither of the two parties in the governing coalition wants elections any time soon because of the lead the rightwing opposition holds in opinion polls.

Yet in a country where political fortunes are notoriously volatile, the reputation Mr Conte won during the first wave will quickly become tarnished should he be seen to be losing control of the situation. “How he handles the situation from here will be critical,” said Ms Gentile.

Mr Albertazzi, meanwhile, cautions that history shows that even “outsider” politicians whom Italians enthusiastically embrace as embodying a break with the status quo can be ejected from the national scene just as quickly.

“We saw this with [the economist and former prime minister] Mario Monti,” he said. “People who come in from outside of politics are always quite attractive at the start, as Italians loathe the political classes. But then people quickly get sick of them as well.”



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EU pledges aid to Lithuania to combat illegal migration from Belarus

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EU immigration updates

In the latest sign of deteriorating relations between the EU and Belarus, Brussels has promised extra financial aid and increased diplomatic heft to help Lithuania tackle a migrant crisis that it blames on neighbouring Belarus and its dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

Lithuania detained 287 illegal migrants on Sunday, more than it did in the entirety of 2018, 2019, and 2020 combined, the vast majority of them Iraqis who had flown to Belarus’s capital Minsk before heading north to cross into the EU state. Almost 4,000 migrants have been detained this year, compared with 81 for the whole of 2020. 

“What we are facing is an aggressive act from the Lukashenko regime designed to provoke,” Ylva Johansson, the EU commissioner for home affairs told reporters on Monday after talks with Lithuania’s prime minister Ingrida Simonyte. “The situation is getting worse and deteriorating . . . There is no free access to EU territory.”

The EU imposed sweeping sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime in June, after he fraudulently claimed victory in last year’s presidential election and then led a brutal campaign to violently suppress protesters and jail political opponents. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994.

The rising concern over the migrant crossings, which EU officials say is a campaign co-ordinated by Lukashenko’s administration, comes as one of the country’s athletes competing in the Tokyo Olympic Games sought refuge in Poland after team management attempted to fly her home against her will after she publicly criticised their actions.

Johansson said the EU would provide €10m-€12m of immediate emergency funding and would send a team of officials to the country to assess the requirements for longer-term financial assistance, including for extra border security and facilities to process those attempting to enter.

Simonyte said that Vilnuis would require “tens of millions of euros” by the end of the year if the number of people attempting to cross the border continued at the current pace.

Lithuania’s foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told the Financial Times in June that Belarus was “weaponising” illegal immigration to put pressure on the Baltic country over its housing of several opposition leaders. Since then, the flow of illegal immigrants from Iraq, Syria, and several African countries has increased sharply.

Iraqi diplomats visited Vilnius at the end of last week after Lithuania’s foreign minister flew to Baghdad in mid-July. Johannson said on Monday that EU diplomats were engaged in “intensive contacts” with Iraqi officials, which she said were “more constructive than we had hoped”.

State carrier Iraqi Airways offers flights from four Iraqi airports to Minsk, according to its website. Former Estonian president Toomas Ilves suggested on Twitter that the EU could cut its aid to Iraq “immediately until they stop these flights”.

Speaking at the border with Belarus on Monday, Johansson added that the tents provided by Lithuania were unsuitable for families. Lithuania’s interior minister Agne Bilotaite said she hoped the number of illegal migrants would subside in the coming months but that Vilnius was planning to build some housing to accommodate them over the upcoming winter.



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Britain’s wrong-headed approach to refugees

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UK immigration updates

Thanks to the bravery of volunteers who run towards storms at sea to rescue ships’ crews, few British institutions command as much respect as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. The charity, however, has recently had to negotiate a different kind of storm, over its efforts to help refugees who get into difficulties crossing the Channel from France. Nigel Farage, the former Brexit party leader, accused it of running a taxi service for illegal trafficking gangs. Last week, the RNLI said it had received hundreds of thousands of pounds of extra donations in response.

The RNLI has become embroiled in a now familiar story when the summer months allow more small boats to make the Channel crossing. Compared with the flows to other countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece, only a handful of migrants attempt the journey. That makes the UK’s inability to control the border in an effective and humane way — and shabby treatment of those who do make it across — no less of a scandal.

Britain’s strategy for stemming the flow has relied mostly on paying the French authorities to limit the number of boats crossing and return any that leave to France, while deterring would-be migrants through the unwelcoming environment that awaits them. Just as EU countries are dependent on their neighbours for keeping entrants down — whether Morocco for Spain or Belarus for Lithuania — the UK needs French co-operation to control the mutual border. Diplomatic spats, whether over Brexit or extra Covid quarantine restrictions on arrivals from France, have made that harder.

The UK approach manages to be simultaneously ineffective and cruel. Yvette Cooper, chair of the home affairs select committee, wrote last week to home secretary Priti Patel to complain of unacceptable conditions in the holding facility for migrants who make it to the Kent coast. A recent unannounced visit by MPs found most of those remaining in the overcrowded facility sitting on a thin mattress on the floor, with women and children in the same room as adult men.

Earlier this year, the High Court ruled that “squalid” conditions in the Napier Barracks, a temporary centre set up last year to house asylum seekers during the pandemic, were so bad as to be unlawful. While arrivals have declined since the peak seven years ago, cutbacks have led to a backlog in processing claims, leaving more in a legal limbo.

Since the start of the pandemic Britain has shut down other paths into the country, ending a resettlement scheme. This has ceded the ground to people traffickers. The “push factors” of the risk of violence and torture at home and “pull factors” of higher living standards mean many are still willing to resort to risky and illegal methods to try to reach the UK. Creating a harsh environment for those who make it has done little to dispel the widespread belief among migrants that Britain is a better destination than other European countries, and stem the flow.

That will not stop the government trying. Barristers have warned that a clause in draft border legislation could potentially make it a crime to help asylum seekers arrive in the UK, with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment; at present it is illegal to do so to earn a profit. The Home Office says the clause is aimed at criminal traffickers. But along with a suggestion to set up offshore processing centres, the provision has rightly earned criticism from human rights groups. If the government is unwilling to create safe and legal routes, its only option is to prevent people from coming in the first place. That, ultimately, will mean relying on France.



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Olympic organisers investigate after Belarusian runner seeks refuge

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Tokyo Olympics updates

A Belarusian runner due to compete at the Tokyo Olympics was taken to the airport against her wishes after making complaints about her coaches, according to media reports on Sunday night.

The International Olympic Committee, the Games organisers, said it had asked for clarification from the Belarus team about the status and whereabouts of Krystina Tsimanouskaya, who is due to compete in the women’s 200m sprint on Monday.

Belarus’ dictatorial leader Alexander Lukashenko and his regime are widely seen as international pariahs after he fraudulently claimed victory in last year’s presidential election and then embarked on a brutal campaign to suppress protesters and supporters of his rival, which has seen thousands beaten and jailed. 

Images and video circulated on social media sites by Belarusian opposition activists appear to show Tsimanouskaya at Tokyo’s Haneda airport, where she refused to board a plane and instead sought refuge with Japanese police.

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya took part in the heats for the women’s 100 metres on Friday but narrowly missed qualifying for the semi-finals © Aleksandra Szmigiel/Reuters

The IOC said it “has seen the reports in the media, is looking into it and has asked the [Belarus] national Olympic committee for clarification”.

Japanese police did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Belarusian Olympic Committee did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but a statement attributed to the body suggests she had been removed from competition by coaches on the advice of doctors advice about her “emotional, psychological state”.

Late on Sunday, Tsimanouskaya shared a screenshot of that statement on Instagram with the message: “This is a lie.”

“I am asking the International Olympic Committee for help, they are putting pressure on me and they are trying to take me out of the country without my consent,” Tsimanouskaya said in a video message reportedly recorded on Sunday evening from the airport and posted on social media.

A person close to Olympic officials said there remained “confusion” around the incident, adding they had been told that Tsimanouskaya had boarded a coach to the airport and had gone through the departures area to board a plane to Istanbul, where she then sought Japanese police to ask for asylum.

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya tweeted that she was grateful to the IOC for its quick reaction. “She has a right to international protection and to continue participation in the Olympics. It is also crucial to investigate Belarus’ NOC violations of athletes’ rights,” she said.

Tsimanouskaya on Friday appeared to criticise her coaches and team management in an Instagram post that said she had been “ignored” and that “people in higher ranks should respect us as athletes”.

The 24-year-old had taken part in the heats for the women’s 100 metres on Friday but narrowly missed on qualifying for the semi finals of the event. She is listed on official Olympics sites as due to compete in the first round of the 200 metres at the Olympic stadium on Monday morning.





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