The Italian papers were quick to make a connection to increasing anti-European and anti-immigrant rhetoric from the Conservative government in the UK. Some intitial reports in Italy mentioned the new campaign by the government to send vans into certain neighbourhoods telling illegal immigrants to “go home” in big letters.
The initial press coverage prompted Hannes Swoboda, the leader of the Socialist (S&D) group in the European Parliament, to issue a press release saying the murder was the result of the xenophobic climate created by the government. "The xenophobic, aggressive climate inflamed by populists such as UKIP and by the rhetoric of the Conservatives in government is now leading to murder in the streets of Britain,” said Swoboda in a statement. “Campaigns such as vans with slogans telling immigrants to 'go home' and continuous negative rhetoric against foreigners – including EU citizens – are creating an ugly mood in Britain, which has long prided itself on being an open-minded and tolerant nation.”
"I call on the British government to stop their ambiguous PR campaigns and scapegoating of migrant workers and set a better example for a decent and tolerant society,” he added. But by today it emerged that there's a problem with Swoboda's analysis – the attackers were migrant workers themselves.
British police said today that four Lithuanian nationals ranging in age from 21 to 30 had been arrested and charged with the beating, and also with aggravated battery in an attack on a second Italian national who survived. In total there are ten ‘persons of interest' that the police are talking to, and they have not revealed the nationality of the others.
Once the nationality of the attackers was learned, the British Conservative MEPs hit back hard against Swoboda. "To attribute blame for this tragic murder to the British government's crackdown on illegal immigration is exceptionally low,” said Martin Callanan, the leader of the British Conservatives in the European Parliament. “Hannes Swoboda should apologise for politicising a tragedy.”
Callanan went on to demonstrate how one should not politicise tragedy by pointing out that Swoboda is a “close ally” of UK Labour leader Ed Milliband. “"Labour should now tell us whether they stand by Swoboda's slur."
A spokesperson for the S&D group said they are not retracting their original statement, pointing out that only four out of the ten people involved have been said to be Lithuanian nationals and it is still not clear what their connection to Lithuania is (they may have been born in the UK). She said the point about “aggressive, violent rhetoric” that scapegoats new migrants for taking jobs still stands, whether or not the attackers themselves were British.
Assuming that the reports are true that the attackers' motivation was based on new immigrants taking jobs, could this still be based on anti-immigrant rhetoric from politicians? I suppose it's not inconceivable that an Eastern European immigrant who has lived in the UK for some time would hear speeches by politicians about new EU arrivals taking jobs and understand that to mean they are taking his jobs. The history of immigration in the United States is rife with this phenomenon of old waves of immigrants attacking new waves of immigrants for undercutting their labour.
Though it seems clear to me that this kind of xenophobic rhetoric is intended for white English people, the message has seemed to resonate with minority communities. I've noticed with interest that when British broadcasters do man-on-the-street interviews they are easily able to find first or second generation immigrants to say they support a government policy of lowering the number of immigrants who can come into the country and cracking down on illegal immigration. It's not hard to see why if they are being told that their own jobs are being threatened by new waves of immigration.
In the end, the reports about the attackers' motivation may prove to be false. This could simply be a case of an argument over something completely unrelated (though Leotta's friends and family in Italy say he was not the type to go looking for trouble). In that case, Swoboda's knee-jerk comments would look a bit foolish. If this was a question of one group of immigrants attacking another over ‘stealing jobs', the issue gets a bit more muddy.
In any case, the immediate reaction of the Italian press and of the Socialists in Parliament is telling. Rightly or wrongly, Britain has now acquired for itself a reputation in continental Europe as a country that is unfriendly to immigration. Even if it turns out that Leotta's murder was unrelated to the immigration issue, the average Italian citizen will take away the message that Britain is not the most welcoming place for a foreign person to go.
Unlike Italy or other continental European countries, the UK has long had a reputation as a country that is open and welcoming to immigrants. This reputation seems to be changing.
Callanan may think Swoboda's linkage of the crime to British political rhetoric is grotesque, and that it may be. But Swoboda is not the only one who made this connection. He was taking his cues from the Italian media. Whether or not it is fair, this is the image the UK is now living with in Europe.