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4th Dec 2021

EU commission rejects Italy budget threat on migrants

  • Migrants are being picked up by Italian coast guard ships in the Mediterranean sea (Photo: SOS Mediterranee)

The European Commission said on Friday (24 August) it would not bow to threats by the Italian government after deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio said Italy would withhold EU funds if other countries did not take migrants from a coast guard ship in Sicily.

"Finding a solution is our main priority, this is what we are focused on, this is what everybody else should be focused on … Unconstructive comments, let alone threats, are not helpful, and will not get us closer to a solution," said a commission spokesman reacting to the Italian deputy PM.

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Di Maio said on Thursday that his party, the Five Star Movement, would vote to suspend funding to the EU next year unless other states agreed to take in the migrants.

The Diciotti coast guard ship docked in Sicily three days ago with more than 150 people on board. Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini has not allowed them to disembark, but, after mounting international pressure, he let children off the boat on Thursday.

Last Sunday, Italy asked the EU commission for help to find host countries for the migrants across the continent.

Member states helped Italy in two similar incidents earlier this summer, but no EU country has stepped forward this time.

"The commission works intensively for a solution," a spokesperson for the commission said on Friday.

EU diplomats from 12 member states who helped before, or who are "more directly concerned by migration management issues" convened in Brussels on Friday, the commission also said.

That included diplomats from Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain.

The Italian government has high hopes for a decision to emerge from Friday's talks, but the commission played down that possibility.

The gathering was an informal one and had not been convened "precisely and specifically" to solve the Diciotti case, the commission said.

It said Friday's meeting was a follow-up to the EU summit in June, which agreed on the bare bones of a new European asylum policy, and that diplomats would discuss "sustainable solutions".

"We want to move away from the ship by ship troubleshooting," a commission spokesman said.

Italy wants a deal despite the caveats, however.

"If tomorrow nothing comes out of a European Commission meeting on redistributing migrants from the Diciotti ship, the 5-Star and I will not be willing to give €20bn each year to the EU," Di Maio said on Thursday in a video on Facebook.

That would be an unprecedented move as no member state has ever failed to pay into the EU budget.

"Let's not engage in finger-pointing … The European Union is a community of rules and it operates on the basis of rules, not threats," the commission spokesman said on Friday.

Italy received €10bn from the EU budget in 2017, he added.

"These benefits are only a small part of the benefits that Italy and all the other member states draw from being part of the EU, and from being part of a single market," he said.

Di Maio's threat marks another attempt by Italy to put pressure on member states and the commission to agree to an asylum system that would alleviate its burden.

Italy is the main entry-point to Europe for migrants who cross the Mediterranean sea.

In June, EU leaders agreed to set up new migrant reception centres along the Mediterranean rim, both inside and outside the EU, to hold asylum seekers, but so far no countries from the region have stepped forward to host such camps.

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Big on promises and short on detail, the EU summit's focus on migration failed to tackle the fractured nature of asylum, leaving the prospect of internal border controls unanswered as leaders appeared to issue victory statements.

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