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10th Jul 2020

Italian populists try to sink EU migrant mission

Italy is stepping up its campaign to stop EU ships from taking rescued migrants to its ports.

Giuseppe Conte, its prime minister, fired the latest salvo in a letter to EU institutions on Thursday (19 July) that was leaked to Italian media.

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  • League twitter accounts are using 'Salvini Prime Minister' hashtags (Photo: European Parliament)

The EU should create a "crisis cell" for "coordinating the action of member states on finding landing ports and countries willing to take the rescued persons," he said.

"What happened on Sunday should become the norm, no longer entrusted to phone calls among partners, but to a cabinet or crisis committee under the aegis of the European Commission, which will then be a mediator among the various governments," he said on the front page of Il Fatto Quotidiano, an Italian newspaper, the same day.

The Czech Republic and Hungary, which are also ruled by anti-immigrant parties, were against the idea, he admitted.

"I am trying to convince them ... that even they, who do not border the Mediterranean, are not immune to this problem," he told the newspaper.

Italy, last Sunday, refused to take care of 450 people who were drifting in a wooden boat in the Mediterranean Sea, prompting five other EU countries to take them instead - France, Germany, Malta, Portugal, and Spain.

Such refusals, which violate international law, have already become the norm since a populist government, under the de facto leadership of Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right League party, took power in May.

Rome's ambassador to the EU, Luca Franchetti, earlier on Wednesday also told his counterparts at security talks in Brussels that Italy would no longer take people who were rescued by the 11 warships of Operation Sophia, an EU naval mission off the coast of Libya, where most of the migrant boats set off.

"Italy holds that the current provisions of the EUnavfor mission [Sophia] are no longer applicable," Italian foreign minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi said the same day in a letter to Federica Mogherini, the EU's foreign affairs chief.

Rome's ideas could scupper the mission, which automatically takes people to Italy, the closest landfall, in line with maritime laws on search and rescue.

Its mandate expires in December, unless it is renewed by a consensus, after having rescued almost 45,000 people in the past three years.

'Assess the consequences'

"We will assess the consequences of the Italian request," an EU spokeswoman said on Thursday.

"Italy has not yet formalised the request, so we'll see at tomorrow's meeting," she said, referring to follow-up EU security talks to be held in Brussels on Friday.

Rome's campaign comes amid wider EU turbulence on immigration.

The German government came close to collapse last month when its interior minister threatened to close the border with Austria in defiance of chancellor Angela Merkel.

Anti-immigrant parties also hold sway in Austria, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia and have surged in polls in France, Germany, and Sweden.

The far-right swing comes despite the fact the numbers of migrants coming to Europe have dropped sharply, highlighting the political, rather than practical, aspects of the so-called "migration crisis".

About 13,000 people came to the EU in June, 56 percent fewer than in the same month last year, according to Frontex, the EU border agency in Warsaw.

The numbers coming to Italy fell by 87 percent to 3,000, while those coming to Spain, whose left-wing government has a more welcoming policy, spiked by 166 percent to 6,400.

Overall numbers for the first half of 2018 also fell by 50 percent to about 60,000 compared to the first half of 2017, and by far further compared to the 1m people who came to the EU in 2015.

For his part, Salvini, the Italian minister, has used the situation to bolster his popularity in what could herald a bid by his far-right League party to formally take power in future.

"I don't like the fact that with five million Italians living in poverty we have to spend €5bn a year for these migrants," he said on Monday in what sounded like a pre-election speech in Silvi Marina, on Italy's east coast

"With fewer foreigners … we will once again be the most beautiful country in the world," he said.

The League polled 31 percent support in an SWG survey in July, compared to the 17 percent it got in elections in March and ahead of Italy's other main party, the 5 Star Movement, which got 29 percent in the July poll.

If the trend continues, then the EU might have to contend with another populist state in Sweden, where the far-right Sweden Democrats party is polling in first place ahead of elections in September.

Schengen at stake in Austria-Germany talks

German interior minister Horst Seehofer is in Vienna on Thursday - as his plan to reject some asylum seekers was met by an Austrian threat to close its borders too.

EU migration talks hit Italian rock

As the EU summit opened in Brussels, positions were still apparently irreconcilable on how to deal with people trying to cross the Mediterranean sea, with the Italy's PM Giuseppe Conte threatening to veto conclusions.

EU still not clear on where to put rescued migrants

The mandate for Operation Sophia, the EU's naval mission in the Mediterranean sea, ends in December. Demands to change it, including new rules on disembarkation, are set to be agreed within the next few weeks.

Border pre-screening centres part of new EU migration pact

Michael Spindelegger, the former minister of foreign affairs of Austria and current director of the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD), reveals some of the proposals in the European Commission's upcoming pact on migration and asylum.

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