Amidst a massive influx of immigrants, Italy is reconsidering its citizenship laws. The move to amend the blood rights principle has the support of the pope and the prime minister but it has conservatives up in arms.
The recent significant migration waves in some parts of the world have forced many affected countries to discuss and renegotiate their citizenship policies. These have included moves to more restrictive as well as to more generous policies for granting citizenship to immigrants. In that vein, since 2015 the Italian parliament has been discussing the introduction of the ius soli principle—the principle that anyone born in the country has the right to citizenship—in the Italian citizenship law. The current citizenship policy, one of the most conservative in Europe, is solely based on the ius sanguinis principle, the ‘right of blood’ principle that citizenship is granted only to those of Italian descent.
The proposal to include the ius soli principle in the citizenship law was approved by the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, in 2015 but has only recently reached the senate, due to the obstruction of the anti-immigration party, the Northern League. Over the past few months, the Northern League, led by Matteo Salvini, has submitted almost 8,000 proposals to amend the bill. The purpose was to slow down the legislative process to avoid the final approval in the senate.
Despite this, on 15 June the proposal arrived in the senate, causing chaos and violence initiated by the Northern League senators. The Minister of Education Valeria Fedeli was taken to the senate infirmary suffering a battered elbow, another senator was mildly injured and some were suspended due to the use of inappropriate language. The government’s attempt to bypass the Northern League obstruction was not well received by the minority party. Following these episodes, the Northern League submitted new proposals for amendments—reaching 48,408 requests—suggesting that Salvini’s party is willing to do anything to stop the new law.
The new policy
The proposed new policy, promoted by the centre-left and the government, will allow children born in Italy to immigrant families to obtain Italian citizenship. It also aims to implement a tempered ius soli that will grant citizenship rights to those minors with one of the two parents with a valid residency permit (for non-EU immigrants) or a permanent residency permit (for EU immigrants).
The new law will also introduce an innovative principle that has been defined by some as ius culturae. According to this principle, children in Italy from immigrant families without a residency permit, or minors who relocated to Italy before the age of twelve, will obtain citizenship if they successfully complete five consecutive years in an Italian school. For those children who arrived to Italy after the age of 12, the new policy will require minors to complete six consecutive years of education in an Italian school.
The introduction of these new criteria for citizenship acquisition is an unprecedented step forward for the country. Italy has always based its citizenship policies on the ius sanguinis principle, considering citizenship a ‘family business’ despite the increasing presence of immigrants in the country. According to recent data, since 1999 more than 976,000 children were born in Italy to immigrant parents. At the end of 2015, there were more than 5 million immigrants with permanent residency in the country.
Despite the significant presence of immigrants, previous governments have been reluctant to promote new citizenship policies based on the ius soli principle. Party politics has always played a significant role, making it difficult to implement any changes. The most conservative parties in parliament have never supported the ius soli principle and the Northern League has always represented the greatest obstacle to reaching the necessary parliamentary majority to pass the law.
Recently, however, the Northern League has not been not alone in blocking the policy. The Five Star Movement has also decided not to support the current proposal, but some suggest the rejection of the new citizenship law is a stunt due to separate disagreements between the minority parties and the government regarding a new electoral law.
The truth might be better than any hypothesis. Xenophobia is still common in Italy, which makes parties like the Northern League popular in specific regions of the country—the same regions where the highest percentage of immigrants live. At the same time, the silence of the Five Star Movement on the matter has served the movement, led by Beppe Grillo, well. It is unclear where Grillo’s party stands in relation to citizenship rights for immigrants and this silence has bought the movement time and has pleased parts of its electorate.
Italy has never been so close to abandoning the conservative and anachronistic ius sanguinis, however, whether the political parties will find an agreement in the senate to pass the bill remains uncertain. The risk of not reaching an agreement is losing an unprecedented opportunity for the country to make things right, as invoked not only by Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, but also by Pope Francis who last week asked for the recognition of dignity for immigrants in the country.
Chiara De Lazzari is completing a PhD in politics at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. Her research investigates political transnationalism and citizenship rights of Italian emigrants.
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