Wednesday

31st Aug 2016

Italian minister questions value of EU membership

  • Roberto Maroni (l) failed to persuade his colleagues about the plight of Italy (Photo: Council of European Union)

A dozen EU states rallied behind France on Monday (11 April) in a dispute with Italy over Rome's granting of temporary residence permits to Tunisian immigrants, warning of the "collapse" of the Schengen area and the re-introduction of borders.

Speaking after a meeting of interior ministers in Luxembourg, Italian minister Roberto Maroni from the anti-immigrant Lega Nord party, said his country had to "consider if it is still worth being part of the EU," since nobody wanted to help shoulder the immigration burden.

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"It's fine when Italy contributes to euro bail-outs, to wars, but on this very specific issue of helping us out, EU states are absolutely not willing to show solidarity," he said on his way out of the ministers' meeting.

The Italian government last Thursday issued a decree granting temporary residence to the roughly 23,000 Tunisian migrants who arrived via the tiny island of Lampedusa. But the permits are seen as a free pass to France, with the French authorities having already sent back hundreds of Tunisians at the Italian border.

Germany, France and Austria, along with other countries such as the Netherlands, Finland, Belgium and Slovakia, view Schengen as a matter of trust among member states. Italy is "undermining this basic principle," one diplomat present at the "heated debate" said.

Austria, which shares a land border with Italy, threatened to re-impose borders. Interior minister Maria Fekter warned of the "collapse of the Schengen system" if Italy's behaviour is tolerated.

"What Italy is doing is using a national emergency law for temporary protection in order to politicise the whole Tunisian immigration issue so that everyone in the EU is affected by it. They've succeeded in doing that, but now we expect that they stick to the rules," German interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said during a press briefing in Luxembourg, at the end of a long debate over Mediterranean migration.

"The issuing of mass permits is a violation of the Schengen spirit. If tens of thousands were to be granted these permits, then it would not be only France, Germany and Austria to re-instate borders, but also countries further away. Then we would lose what we have achieved with Schengen," Friedrich said.

The only country supporting Italy in the call for solidarity from other EU countries was Malta, in a similar situation with more than 800 refugees from Libya arriving to the island in the past week. Both Malta and Italy asked the European commission to trigger the activation of a special refugee directive - an EU 2001 law set up after the Kosovo war but never used - for people fleeing the war zone in Libya. The application of the directive would automatically give everyone escaping such an area refugee status right across the EU.

But they were isolated in their call.

"There was a very strong majority in favour of the fact that this directive can be used, but it is too premature at the moment. There would have to be a massive influx of refugees," home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said during a press briefing. Later on, she insisted that "nobody wants Italy to leave the EU, it is a founding member and a great asset."

Ministers did agree to alleviate Malta's strained asylum capacities by prolonging a resettlement programme. Several member states offered to relocate some of the mostly sub-Saharan refugees who managed to escape Libya and cross the Mediterranean. Germany offered to take 100 people, Belgium, Hungary, Sweden, Portugal, Spain and Norway also expressed willingness to help.

"Ministers were very clear in separating the two issues. Malta's plight with refugees from Libya is one thing - the island is tiny and for them, 800 people is a lot," said one EU diplomat. "But they did not agree with Italy, a country of 60 million, to claim that it needs the special protection directive to deal with economic migrants, not refugees," the source added.

"Maroni was the only one mixing up the two issues - irregular migration, for people with no right to claim asylum and who have to be returned to their home country - and refugees from Somalia, Eritrea and so one, who were stuck in Libya and have managed to escape, but cannot be sent to their home countries."

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