As part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Silvia Stilli, spokesperson of AOI, the largest civil society platform in Italy, and director of ARCS, a civil society organisation that promotes active citizenship and participatory democracy. Well known for her active commitment in the peace movements of the 1980s, she has 20 years of experience in volunteer work, humanitarian aid and international cooperation. Silvia is particularly active on issues related to migrants and refugees, and recently made a statement on behalf of AOI on the denial of entry to Italy for the migrant rescue boat Aquarius.

1. Italy’s March 2018 general election led to the formation of a coalition government by two populist parties, the Five Star and the League. What are some of the reasons behind this?

The reasons for the current situation do not lie just in the last year, but in the last 10 years. Over the past 10 years, relations between political parties and civil society - which in Italy is very broad - have been getting looser and looser, so the opportunities for engagement have declined. There has been a distancing between political parties and civil society.

During this time, civil society in Italy has become increasingly engaged on social issues, especially since the 2008 global economic crisis, and it has done so by acknowledging the strong interdependence between global challenges and domestic challenges, including in poverty and migration flows. There has been a convergence of the different parts of civil society, including movements that are mobilising to demand rights. Civil society has been mobilising to try to connect global, regional and national issues. Migration is not a standalone issue. It’s something that affects us domestically, but because of our geographic location in the Mediterranean region.

While civil society has taken a joined-up approach, political parties, including progressive parties, were treating poverty and the economic crisis as purely economic issues requiring domestic responses. Citizens found themselves caught between these two completely different views of how to deal with the situation.

Another element is the huge mobilisation that has happened around the Five Star movement, which brought together many people around the need for change. This was an entirely new movement that attracted a lot of interest and support. People mobilised without necessarily looking at the depth of their political views, their orientation and programmes. Let’s see if they will actually bring some change.

2. How are these current changes in politics being experienced by civil society?

As well as concerns about migration, Italian citizens have experienced concern about security - both personal security, because there have been terrorist attacks, and livelihood security, given the difficulty of finding jobs. These sort of uncertainties and perceptions of insecurity have created the idea among some citizens that the work traditionally pursued by civil society organisations (CSOs), even if done with the best of intentions, is not taking into account their fears and insecurities. This anxiety has somewhat detached citizens from groups working on social issues.

Over the last two years, donations from citizens, be it voluntary contributions or allocations from tax deductions, have been decreasing. This was an alarming issue even before the election. However, overall, there has been no decline in citizen engagement, as seen for example in volunteering. This has been stable or even slightly increased, particularly among young people, who if anything are more inclined to engage through civil society than join a political party.

But at the same time that citizens are giving less - including to the many groups that are active in providing support and services in Italy to communities and vulnerable groups, some of which have had services outsourced to them by municipalities, including those run by the League - there are more demands on civil society. So we see on the one hand some financial decline, and on the other hand increasing need.

Civil society’s role is under discussion. The new message seems to be that civil society can only operate to implement policies established by the government. This is opening up a crisis because it was not the case until now.

3. How have politicians and political parties cultivated support, and what have been the impacts on rights?

The current confusion of citizens has happened because of the language that has been used, not just by the current government but by previous governments of both right and left. They started to use language revolving around security against migrants, border control and safety. They attack CSOs working on these issues, seeking to detach citizens from the so-called ‘do-gooders’ of civil society. The fact that the centre-left also spoke this language has confused many citizens, including the more progressive part of the citizenry who might naturally embrace tolerance and sensitivity towards social issues. The consequence is that some citizens have become disconnected from traditional values of democracy.

What is underway, to some extent continuing some measures of the previous government, is the promotion of an unequal society. They are talking about reduced rights and privileges for whoever is different, especially foreigners and migrants, and not only those coming now by sea, but also those who are already in Italy.

More broadly, a number of rights that have been expanded in recent years - on same-sex civil unions, abortion, living wills, access to services for a number of minority groups - are all now being undermined. Every day new ministers of this government are making declarations that undermine these and the victories civil society helped achieve in the past. The language used by the government and mainstream parties is more and more attacking minority groups, and the civil society that works with them.

Recently a Five Star member of parliament posted a Facebook message saying that CSOs that are mobilising for migrants need to be got rid of, in effect calling for a ‘fumigation’ of Italian civil society. This is the kind of language that parts of the new government are using against civil society.

There is also the ‘Soros effect’ in Italy. The Minister of Internal Affairs now wants to check the budgets of CSOs to see if they are getting money from George Soros and Open Society Foundations. The same minister wants to create a racial profiling of the Roma community, who in most cases are citizens of Italy and not foreigners. This profiling on the basis of race is something that previously wouldn't have been possible in Italy.

Within this new coalition government, the party that most extremely speaks the language of security is the League, from which the minister of interior affairs comes. It joined the new government as the minority partner, but the latest polls show that its leader, who is being assertive about security, is gaining support.

These changes have opened up a big crisis of cultural values and challenges, both for the Catholic and secular parts of civil society, which have both played a key role in promoting equality and access to rights. This new approach is disorientating a broad part of established civil society.

4. How is civil society responding, both to demonstrate its value, and to help those being targeted politically?

On 24 July 2018, several parts of civil society in Italy collectively organised an ‘email bombing’, all sending an email to the coastal guard. This initiative was joined by millions of citizens. This was a huge mobilisation to request that the coastal guard disregard instructions to devolve the management of migrants to the Libyan coastal guard. This was the first time since the election that we witnessed such a massive mobilisation.

After a very difficult period when civil society groups in Italy have faced defamation, smear campaigns and accusations, not only from political parties but also from citizens, this event was positive and shows negative trends being challenged, with citizens offering a massive mobilisation in support.

Italian civil society is almost unanimously aligned on one point: that basic and fundamental human rights cannot be denied, and so they do not support the closure of ports and the blocking of ships and their return to Libya. In the case of the Aquarius, the response has mostly been to point to international treaties and norms, and to call for opening ports in the name of safe ports. Libyan ports clearly don't meet the definition of safe ports.

Civil society is asking that humanitarian organisations can continue to work with the coastal guard and others involved at sea, as was the case in the past. There have been a number of judicial decisions that back the actions of civil society rescue ships. When rescue ships have been blocked, judges have determined that the ships have been in compliance with international norms, especially the Law of the Sea, and that this definitely overrides the state’s ability to block them.

Civil society is trying to mobilise different actors within Italy - not only civil society groups, but also local authorities and parts of government, such as those that deal with health and education, and is calling for a more integrated and strategic approach, at least at the national level, looking into rescue at sea and also best practices in integrating communities. It is also calling for changes in foreign policy and development cooperation policy, to look at the complexities and dynamics of countries and regions that migrants come from, and how best to stabilise these and prevent people from needing to migrate: to take a more joined-up approach, at least at the Italian level, but this should also be the approach at the European level.

Civil society points to the need for a strategic policy at the European level on this issue. On this, if not on the issue of the closure of ports, there is an alignment of civil society and government views.

5. What else could Italian civil society do to respond, and what are its support needs?

Although Italian civil society is now well connected and belongs to European and international networks, it has probably started late in engaging meaningfully in those networks. At the beginning, it was often enough to belong, but not be really actively engaged. We then realised the importance of using these channels to engage, such as to bring to wider attention what is happening with migration in Italy that some other parts of Europe might not be experiencing as we are: to raise awareness of the real challenges and struggles. It is crucial for Italian civil society to open up further to regional and international networks. Within key European civil society networks there is recognition of the need to bring forward a new narrative on migration and the integration of migrants in Europe, which could point to the positives of these, and not only the economic argument, but also the benefits of social and cultural growth for Europe. There is a need to invest in this as a medium and long-term political strategy. This is one of the most crucial things that Italian civil society should be doing together with broader European networks to change views of fear about insecurity and instability.

The second thing we need to do is work with new generations, including in schools and informal spaces, to find channels to engage them in ways that interest them, and invest in their understanding of today’s dynamics so they can be the drivers of change in future. We need to promote more volunteering abroad and the hosting of volunteers in Italy, and exchanges among students and young people who have come from areas of crisis.

Third, we need to work more with parliament, since there has been a major turnover of those who sit in parliament. There are new people who may not be much aware of the issues and so endorse populist narratives. We need to talk with them and influence them.

Fourth, we need to work more strategically with the media, to push for a better narrative and try to work through the media to shape opinion.

Finally, it’s important to highlight critical issues about civil society as well as positive ones. The fact that the credibility of civil society has been undermined, creating a decrease in donations and contributions, has prompted civil society to work more on our self-evaluation tools, to be critical, honest, self-assess how we have been doing things, and move towards more transparency and giving more feedback to citizens, including through participatory budgets and more transparent reports. Not only is it necessary for citizens to know where their money goes, but it is also the right way to respond to attacks.

Civic space in Italy is rated as ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with AOI and ARCS through their websites or follow @AOIcooperazione and @ArcsCultSol on Twitter.