Tuesday

21st Aug 2018

Macron butts heads with Italian populists on migration

  • Italian PM Giuseppe Conte accused Emmanuel Macron of 'hypocrisy' (Photo: quirinale.it)

France has butted heads with Italy's populists on migration, while the European Commission watches from the sidelines.

Rome's decision to block women, children, and injured people from care in Italy earlier this week flagrantly disregarded the law of the sea, which says that "in cases of distress, those with the nearest coastline have a responsibility to respond", French president Emmanuel Macron's spokesman said on Tuesday (12 June).

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  • France (Corisca) also offered to take in the Aquarius (Photo: European Parliament)

There was also "a degree of cynicism and irresponsibility in the Italian government's behaviour", Macron added in his own words.

The blocked boat, the Aquarius, carrying 629 African nationals from Libya, was rescued in Italy's zone of responsibility, but had to wait three days at sea before being taken in by Spain.

That left seven pregnant women, 123 unaccompanied minors, and 15 people suffering from chemical burns, among the others, to be cared for by charities in harsh conditions.

It also left EU migration policy in disarray ahead of a summit on precisely that subject in late June, prompting Macron's reference to Italy's "cynical" timing.

It posed the question who would take care of future boats if Italy continued to shirk its obligations.

But Rome's policy remained unclear, despite the stance by its new leaders, as Italy took in 937 other migrants who had been rescued by an EU naval mission, Operation Sophia, on Tuesday.

"I'm glad the French have discovered responsibility: If they want, we'll help them. Let them open their ports and we'll transfer a few of the people to France," Italy's deputy PM, Luigi Di Maio, from the 5 Star Movement (5MS) party, crowed at Macron the same day.

"Spain wants to denounce us, France says that I'm 'nauseating.' I want to work calmly with everybody but with a principle: #firsttheitalians," Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini, from the far-right League party, said.

"Italy cannot accept hypocritical lessons from countries that have always preferred to turn their backs when it comes to immigration," prime minister Giuseppe Conte added.

The anti-French salvos came despite the fact authorities on the French island of Corsica had also offered to take in the Aquarius and the fact that France was a proponent of EU migrant-sharing quotas.

But the European Commission declined to take sides, while fretting over the future of "the whole European project".

Some of the "rhetoric" on migration from EU capitals was "very dangerous" and Aquarius-type "incidents" could harm trust, migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos warned on Tuesday.

That was the closest he came to criticism of Di Maio and Salvini, opting to leave the fight to member states instead.

"I'm not here to play the blame game … people in a desperate situation [on the Aquarius] were saved, that's what counts ultimately," Avramopoulos said.

He commended Italy's "Herculean effort" in taking in hundreds of thousands of migrants over the past three years.

"The commission will continue to support Italy politically, practically, and financially … Italy has delivered," he said.

Lack of solidarity on asylum reform, which has left Italy and Avramopoulos' native Greece to shoulder most of the burden, "is putting in danger the whole European project," he added, in a word of caution.

The kid-glove treatment of Italy comes amid concern that its populist economics could blow apart eurozone fiscal rules, destabilising the single currency.

It also comes amid EU efforts to win back voters from populist forces further afield in Europe.

Italy's blockade of the Aquarius was a "great moment which may truly bring changes in Europe's migration policies", Hungary's right-wing hardman, prime minister Viktor Orban, said on Tuesday, highlighting the breadth of the anti-immigrant axis.

Budget hike

The commission is throwing money at the problem in its next seven-year budget, Avramapoulos noted as the Aquarius dispute unfolded.

Funding for migration projects is to triple to €34.9 billion in the coming seven years, he said.

This would help to reimburse frontline states with a huge workload on land and sea borders or at airports and consular offices.

It would also help to pay for 10,000 EU-badge wearing border guards to work alongside national authorities and for new scanners and IT systems designed to improve visa and customs security.

The measures put a stress on keeping people out rather than on helping people in need, but Avramapoulos denied that Europe was losing its heart.

"We're not fortress Europe. We want to build a humane but fair and strict migration and borders policy," he said.

Hungary and Poland are currently in the dock for boycotting EU migrant quotas, but the commissioner signalled an equally soft approach on that front.

Soft approach

"If we're thinking of changing the procedures [on migrant sharing], then why impose sanctions [now]? … the commission is not here to dictate, not to impose ," he said, when asked if they would face penalties.

Even if numbers of migrants coming to Italy and Greece went up in summer, the situation was already far better than in 2015, when one million people arrived into Europe from the Middle East, the commissioner said, playing down the Aquarius furore.

"More than 93 percent of people [coming into the EU now] are fingerprinted and identified. This wasn't the case in 2015," he said.

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