23rd Mar 2023

Paris-Rome spat exposes EU 'solidarity' rift on asylum

  • France will no longer relocate 3,500 asylum seekers from Italy (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)
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The European Commission says solidarity on migration remains — despite Paris refusing to relocate some 3,500 asylum seekers from Italy, under a French EU presidency-inspired proposal to distribute thousands of people across member states.

The French refusal follows a spat with Italy's rightwing government over the Ocean Viking vessel, which was denied a port by Rome to disembark 234 people rescued in the Mediterranean Sea. Ocean Viking eventually disembarked in Toulon, a French port city, after a three-week hiatus at sea with most of those onboard being sent on to other EU states.

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"It's unfortunate that they use politics for humanitarianism," Louise Guillaumat, deputy director of operations at SOS Mediterranee, which operates the Ocean Viking rescue ship, told EUobserver on Monday (14 November).

The 3,500 France will no longer take is part of EU's so-called solidarity mechanism, where member states could voluntarily take-in asylum seekers arriving on Italian shores or elsewhere like Greece.

That mechanism was launched in June, at the behest of the French EU presidency earlier this year, which had billed the initiative as historic.

The initial plan sought 10,000 pledges but only managed 8,000, spread across among 13 states , while Denmark, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Switzerland offered only to provide financial contributions.

Some 117 people have been relocated to date, of which 38 went to France from Italy in late August. Another 74 left Italy on 11 October to German cities Hannover and Berlin. France says another 500 would have arrived from Italy by the end of the year.

When pressed on what the French pull-out now means for the solidarity mechanism, the commission suggested nothing was amiss.

"We have seen the need for solidarity and we have also seen the need for the solidarity to continue. And this is in fact happening," a commission spokesperson said.

The response likely points to broader sensitivities over a politically-charged issue whose solution has eluded EU states for years. France is now reportedly demanding that Germany not relocate people from Italy, either.

On Sunday evening, French government spokesman Olivier Véran demanded Europe retaliate against Italy. "The first response was humanitarian in allowing the boat docked in Toulon on Friday," he said.

"The second response is to remind Italy of its obligations, and if it refuses to do so, to consider any useful measure".

The apparent threat followed a joint-statement issued over the weekend by Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus. They said they "cannot subscribe to the notion that countries of first entry are the only possible European landing spots for illegal immigrants."

They also complained that the number of migrants taken in by other EU member states "only represents a very small fraction of the actual number of irregular arrivals."

Italy says it has taken in some 88,000 so far this year, although only a small fraction were disembarked from NGO boats. According to International Organisation for Migration, only 15 percent were rescued by NGO vessels.

Everyone else were rescued by the Italian Coast Guard and other Italian state-led rescue ships or arrived autonomously, they said.

The issue is likely to be broached on Monday during the EU foreign affairs ministerial meeting in Brussels.

Laurence Boone, France's foreign minister, told reporters ahead of the meeting that questions over asylum solidarity will also be discussed.

The commission wants a special meeting among EU interior ministers to help settle the dispute. Margaritis Schinas, a commission vice-president, said they were now drawing up an emergency plan to ease the tensions.

"We cannot allow two member states fighting each other in public and creating yet another mega political crisis over migration," he told Politico Europe, in an interview, last Friday.

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