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16th May 2021

Italy forces migrant boats onto EU defence agenda

  • EU ships should rotate disembarkation ports, Italian defence minister Trenta said (Photo: Ministero Difesa)

Italy is planning to hijack an EU meeting on the Western Balkans to talk about migrant boats instead.

Elisabetta Trenta, its defence minister, splashed her ideas on social media on Wednesday (29 August), saying she was going to Vienna with "a proposal to modify the rules of the Sophia mission".

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  • Italian aircraft carrier Cavour taking part in Sophia in 2016 (Photo: CSDP EEAS)

Sophia is the EU's anti-migrant smuggling naval operation in the Mediterranean.

Thursday's defence ministers' meeting, hosted by the Austrian EU presidency, was meant to hold informal talks on Western Balkans security and on EU military integration.

The EU foreign service has also said Sophia's mandate ought to be discussed closer to December, when its current one expires.

But Trenta said she wanted a decision right away.

"Sophia ... has foreseen that all migrants rescued under this mission will be taken to an Italian port. We consider this principle unacceptable and want its revision," she said on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Other "coastal states", meaning France, Greece, Malta, and Spain, should also take in migrants "through the introduction of a mechanism of rotation of the ports," she said.

Frontex, the EU border control agency, should create "a coordination unit ... which will be responsible for assigning the port to the competent country whenever a ship of the Sophia mission provides rescue at sea", she added.

The new Sophia mandate ought to see most migrants go to France and Spain, Italian defence ministry sources told Italian media.

The rotation principle would apply no matter in which geographical area a search and rescue operation took place, they added.

The new Frontex unit should include delegates from all EU states and should be based in Catania, Sicily, the sources said.

For her part, Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign service chief and a former Italian diplomat, said in Vienna on Thursday that she would ask the defence ministers for "guidance" on Trenta's proposal.

"We will see if there is space, political space ... to find a solution, with a constructive approach and the responsibility of all member states," Mogherini said.

Sophia's naval commanders "needed to know where to go if a search and rescue operation is carried out", she added.

But the mission's mandate could only be changed by "unanimity" and the broader question of migrant sharing was a matter for interior ministers and for EU leaders, rather than for the Vienna talks, Mogherini also said.

Trenta's proposal marks the latest blow in Rome's attack on EU migration policy.

Italy's new government, led by Trenta's populist Five Star Movement and by the far-right League party, has blocked ships from disembarking migrants at Italian ports.

It has threatened to withhold funds from the EU budget if other member states did not agree to share the burden.

It has also vowed to create a new anti-immigrant political axis in time for the EU elections next year together with Hungary.

'Ipocrito'

The budget dispute continued on Wednesday when Italian deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio hurled insults at EU budget commissioner Gunther Oettinger.

Oettinger wa a "hypocrite" for rejecting Italy's budget warnings, Di Maio said on Facebook.

"The only thing the EU understands is when you start to take away the money. Our position on the budget veto remains," Di Maio said.

The migrant disembarkation dispute also rumbled on as far-right and anti-fascist activists faced off in Rome outside a Roman Catholic building, the Rocca di Papa, which had welcomed some 100 Eritrean migrants previously brought to Sicily by an Italian coast guard ship, the Diciotti.

Mario Kunasek

The Austrian EU presidency earlier said that Thursday's talks ought to focus on "engagement with the Western Balkans", which it called "the main focus of Austrian defence policy".

It said ministers would discuss a €13bn joint defence fund and the creation of a new military HQ in Brussels to command missions such as an existing one that trained native in Mali.

But it added that Austrian defence minister, Mario Kunasek, who hails from the far-right FPO party in the ruling coalition, would also present an informal paper on "management of EU external borders", highlighting Austria's sympathies with the emerging anti-migrant bloc.

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