By Philip Pullella and Steve Scherer
ROME – Italy summoned France’s envoy and angrily rejected French criticism of its immigration policies on Wednesday, escalating a diplomatic standoff between the neighbouring European powers.
Italy’s economy minister, Giovanni Tria, also cancelled a meeting with his counterpart in Paris, a day after French President Emmanuel Macron said Rome had acted with “cynicism and irresponsibility” by closing its ports to migrants.
“We have nothing to learn about generosity, voluntarism, welcoming, and solidarity from anyone,” Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini, told the Senate.
Salvini, who is also deputy premier and the leader of the anti-immigrant League party, called on France to apologise and said he was not prepared to take criticism from a country which regularly stopped migrants on their shared border.
The row is centred on the charity ship Aquarius, which both Italy and Malta refused to let dock at their ports. It was carrying 629 migrants and is now heading to Spain, escorted by two Italian ships.
The case touched on one of the main faultlines in European politics – how to share the responsibility of handling migrants trying to get into the bloc from war zones and poor countries, largely across Africa and the Middle East.
Salvini’s League scored its best-ever result in March national elections, partly on pledges to deport hundreds of thousands of migrants and halt the flow of newcomers, and has formed a coalition with the anti-system 5-Star Movement.
More than 1.8 million have entered Europe since 2014, and Italy is now sheltering more than 170,000 asylum seekers, as well as an estimated half-million unregistered migrants.
Successive governments have accused other EU states have ignored pleas to take in some of the newcomers and share the cost of their care.
France tried to take a more conciliatory tone on Wednesday. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll saying it was “fully aware of the burden that the migration pressure is placing on Italy” and that it was committed to cooperating with Rome on immigration.
The countries’ two economy ministers also spoke by telephone, French finance ministry official said, and agreed to reschedule their cancelled meeting.
But Italy’s foreign minister, Enzo Moavero, kept up the barrage by telling a French envoy that Macron’s comments were “unjustifiable” and had compromised relations between the two countries.
Salvini told the Senate he was open to a possible “axis” with Germany and Austria on immigration ahead of a key EU summit at the end of June that will, in part, consider changes to EU asylum law to better share the burden of incoming migrants.
“With my German and Austrian colleagues… we will propose a new (immigration) initiative,” Salvini said, adding that it would apply both to the EU’s external borders and to how the bloc’s countries manage migrants internally.
Refugees have continued to arrive as politicians trade blame.
On Wednesday morning, an Italian coast guard vessel with 937 migrants aboard docked in Catania, Sicily, as the Aquarius headed into increasingly rough seas on its way to Valencia, where it is due to arrive on Saturday.
A Dutch-flagged humanitarian ship, the Sea Watch 3, was called by a U.S. Navy vessel to take on board 41 survivors and 12 bodies recovered after a shipwreck on Tuesday.
However, the Sea Watch is still waiting to pick them up, asking for a written guarantee that it will be allowed to dock in an Italian port. Reuters