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Musk joins European leaders in Rome as they seek answers to issue of record, 'irregular' migration

Italy Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni hosted the 25th edition of the peculiar “Atreju” gathering of the young Italian right in Rome.

Published: December 16, 2023 11:40pm

The Italian prime minister’s unlikely budding friendships with her U.K. counterpart and the world’s richest man were on center stage Saturday in Rome as all three took aim at the rising tide of refugees landing in Europe. 

Italy’s Giorgia Meloni played host at the 25th edition of the peculiar “Atreju” gathering of the young Italian right in Rome.

This year’s event is the first since Meloni became prime minister last year.

Among the speakers Saturday – the third day in the four-day event – were British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and billionaire innovator and entrepreneur Elon Musk. 

It was the second face-to-face meeting between Meloni and Sunak in a month, and Musk’s second visit to the Italian capital in six months. (On his previous visit. Musk asked Meloni to find him an “epic” site for his planned fist fight with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg). 

The United States has also struggled in recent years with a surge in migration, particularly at its southwest border. The Biden administration has argued, as it tries to bring legal and illegal migration under control, that the issue is worldwide and part of a global migration pattern.

Net migration to the U.K. recently has hit a record high of 672,000 people, four years after the Conservatives pledged to cut it to a third of that level, according to Politico.

The figures, published last month by the Office for National Statistics, show a significant increase on what was already a record-high of 602,000 people back in May.

The latest release, which cover a 12-month period through June 2023, but further pressure on Sunak, who has promised to significantly decrease the numbers of people moving to the United Kingdom each year.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama was also at the event in Rome this week, while Santiago Abascal, the leader of Spain’s populist Vox party, is set to address the gathering on Sunday. 

The “Atreju” event is an unusual one.

Meloni is well known as a fan of fantasy and science fiction stories. (She raised eyebrows last month when the cash-strapped Italian government funded a major exhibition dedicated to Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien.) And she was just 21 when she founded the “Atreju” gathering in 1998 to encourage young conservatives. 

The event takes its name from the protagonist of the 1984 fantasy film The Neverending Story, which was based on a German novel of the same name. It tells the story of an outcast boy who dives into the pages of a mysterious book and ends up saving the world.

Over the years, “Atreju” has attracted the likes of former Trump political strategist Steve Bannon and nationalist Hungarian leader Viktor Orban. But with the number of would-be asylum seekers landing on Europe’s shores on the rise and in the spotlight in many countries, this year’s event has a higher profile than any of its predecessors. 

At least nominally, the event's speeches covered multiple topics including artificial intelligence, environmental protection, satellite networks, energy supplies, and economic development. But most of the remarks eventually wound back to the question of migration from Africa, the Middle East, and further afield. 

One of the most polarizing topics in Europe these days is Italy’s plan to operate two migrant processing centers in Albania, with refugees transferred to Italy only if they are granted asylum.

The European Commission is studying the agreement to determine whether it runs afoul of European law, and earlier this week a court in Albania suspended the ratification of the agreement. But on Saturday, Rama said he was “confident” the deal would eventually be approved

Sunak said that fighting the increase of irregular immigration would require efforts beyond the old, traditional strategies

It “will require us to update our laws and have international conversations to create a framework on political asylum,” he said. “If migrants come to Italy or England illegally, they will not be able to stay, it must be clear.”

Meloni, who ran for office on a platform of curbing migration only to see it reach its highest levels this year since 2016, cast the battle as one against illegal traffickers who shepherd would-be asylum seekers across the Mediterranean and over borders – often under unsafe conditions. 

“Together, we agreed on the need to address illegal immigration to Europe in an increasingly structured way as well as the need to further intensify collaboration between our nations to combat human traffickers,” she said

In Muss remarks, the billionaire American entrepreneur looked at the migration issue as one tied to economics as well as low birth rates and declining populations. Asked whether Italy was a good place for investment, he allowed “I do worry about the low birth rate,” adding, “If a company is to invest in Italy, will there be enough people to work there?”

But Musk, whose portfolio includes Tesla, SpaceX and the social media site X, who recently  recently said the low birth rate cannot be solved by unfettered migration.

“Let’s increase legal immigration and stop illegal immigration,” he said. Instead, Musk said, said countries with declining populations should concentrate on increasing their birth rates. 

“I agree [Italy] is a good place to invest and a wonderful country,” he said. “Just please make more Italians, that’s what I’m saying.”

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