Can Europe Make It?

Ius soli: Italy’s opportunity to harness much-needed talent

In the US, or anywhere else where there is birthright citizenship – a person like Great Nnachi would be American.

Alessio Colonnelli
22 May 2019, 11.38am
Luca Zaia, President of the Veneto Region, 2018.
Andrea Ronchini/PA. All rights reserved.

Great Nnachi comes from a Nigerian family. What’s remarkable about her is that she set a new pole vault record on April 27, in Turin, the northern Italian city where she was born. She jumped over 3.70 meters, beating the Italian outdoor record set in 2012. But here lies the problem: Nnachi, 14, can’t apply for Italian citizenship until a year before she turns 18. And because of this, the record hasn’t been officially registered yet.

A few days after the event, the Italian Athletics Federation (FIDAL) stated: “The question of whether or not this is an Italian record is controversial, so much so that on May 24, at our next federal council, we shall discuss the interpretation of the rule of jus soli in Italian sport: Is a record set by an athlete of [so-called] ‘equal’ standing a true record or not?”

If Nnachi had been Italian none of this would’ve mattered. Her new record in the cadetti, the youth category, would only have made headlines in local papers. But as it happened, the young athlete’s performance was reported in all national media outlets, TV included. How come?

Great Nnachi
Great Nnachi

Well, Nnachi is de facto Italian – but not for the State. Her first language is Italian and she’s always done her schooling in Turin. (She gets outstanding grades in maths and English.) In the U.S., or anywhere else in the world where there is unrestricted Jus soli – commonly referred to as birthright citizenship – a person like her would be American. No ifs or buts. And yet, the right of anyone born in the territory of a state to claim nationality or citizenship is not foreseen in Italy.

In short, this is a budding champion who cannot be fully recognized as such. As it stands, because she’s not yet an Italian citizen, her achievement can’t be homologated – for the time being, at least. But it could well be that after the Italian athletics chiefs’ official meeting at the end of May Nnachi’s record will simply be… binned. Bureaucracy and sport don’t always go hand in hand.

The only silver lining could be that this case would revive the national debate around a basic right that is already granted in many parts of the world, including countries a lot less developed – democratically and economically – than Italy is. The debate was alive and kicking up until 2017 – and then the government in Rome changed. With the result that no one talks about Jus soli anymore.

Ius soli – in Latin, with an ‘I’, as it is known in Italy – is a legal expression which indicates the acquisition of the nationality of a given country as a consequence of the legal fact of having been born on its territory, independently of the nationality of the parents. It is in contrast with the ius sanguinis (or “right to blood”, the only available yardstick in Italy to grant citizenship), which says that one’s nationality is acquired from the parent – only descent matters here.

Now, almost all countries in the Americas apply Ius soli automatically and unconditionally. The US of course, but also Canada and practically all of Latin America. Some EU countries (France, Germany, Ireland and the United Kingdom) also grant citizenship for Ius soli, albeit subject to conditions.

So, it was the European version of birthright citizenship that Italy’s penultimate government – a centre-left coalition led by the Democrats – tried to bring about through Parliament. The legislative process started in 2015 – it received the green light from the Chamber of Deputies – but was subsequently rejected by the Senate in 2017.

The parliamentarians who opposed Ius soli predominantly belonged to the two parties which soon won the general election in March 2018: the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) and the nationalist Northern League (official name), better known as La Lega. The latter attempted to obstruct debating in the Senate by presenting no less than 48,408 amendments.

That’s how strongly Ius soli was rebuffed. This idea of granting Italian citizenship to the “800,000 children born in Italy of foreign parents who talk and study in Italian,” as La Repubblica newspaper pointed out in June 2017 – at the apex of one of the most heated discussions ever held in the country over the past 10 years or so – was completely rubbished. Ius soli prompted strong accusations in the austere Palazzo Madama (the home of the Senate) and even fistycuffs – Minister for Education Valeria Fedeli (Democrats) and Senator Gian Marco Centinaio (La Lega) were left injured as a result of a prolonged brawl.

The fact that M5S was instrumental to the binning of a progressive piece of legislation that would have reversed Italy’s decline… was rather controversial.

Sure, Ius soli was also rejected by Silvio Berlusconi’s dwindling right-wing party Forza Italia – always ideologically opposed to foreign integration – but the fact that M5S was instrumental to the binning of a progressive piece of legislation that would have reversed Italy’s decline – the country’s regressive reputation is currently fully deserved – was rather controversial.

M5S was still regarded at the time, by many, as Italy’s interpretation of left-leaning populism. The five stars symbolize the key issues for the party: public water, sustainable transport, sustainable development, right to free Internet access, and environmentalism. M5S is pro-renewable energy and against garbage incinerators. The yellow party also advocates nonviolence and de-growth, which effectively make M5S active members of an international social movement based on ecological economics, anti-consumerist as well as anti-capitalist ideas.

So why not go for Ius soli? Well, part of the answer is that populism wouldn’t get into government without conservative votes. More interestingly, Ius soli was a Democratic war horse; and M5S does not talk to the red party. There is no co-operation whatsoever on any level. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this is the politics of metaphorical white children, causing maximum damage to real-life brown and black ones. It is also highly detrimental to both parties too. They rank below Lega, who today stand at over 30.9% in the polls, with M5S at 24.9% and the Democrats at 20.5%.

Part of the answer is that populism wouldn’t get into government without conservative votes.

With the incumbent Interior Minister Matteo Salvini leading Lega – he’s been described in the international press as a far-right leader with neo-fascist sympathies – there’s very little hope of anything changing. This obscurantist landscape is here to stay.


Having said that, one of Salvini’s challengers to the party leadership is Luca Zaia, the governor of the Veneto region (5 million inhabitants, 11% foreigners). Funnily enough, he’s one of the few moderate voices within Lega, and consistently adopts a language akin to the now sluggish centre-right.

In a June 2017 interview with La Repubblica, Zaia said: “Instead of Ius soli, I propose a more advanced solution – provisional citizenship to all foreigners who’ve become integrated.” After that initial period, it would be up to them “to become Italian and achieve this status by respecting rules and traditions.”

To be sure, not a very brave opening at all, yet Zaia’s positioning is possibly the very point Italian progressives need to look at in order to kickstart Ius soli discussions. The conservative and ultra-conservative camps are extraordinarily united and compact on this very question, and need to be engaged at some level. Whereas frontal attacks may bring Italy back to where it all began; a complete waste of time.

In the meantime, if progressives don’t get a move on and handle this with extreme care, Nnachi may well have become an Olympic medallist – for Nigeria. Not great.

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