Refugees caught up in EU war of words

France’s dispute with Italy over the Aquarius migrant ship, which is now on its way to Spain, was diplomatically inept and hypocritical, writes Ferdinando Giugliano.

Two weeks before a crucial meeting of EU leaders, member countries are at loggerheads again over immigration.

A diplomatic spat between France and Italy’s new populist government shows how difficult it will be for the European Council to strike a meaningful deal at the end of June on topics such as relocating refugees or deepening the monetary union.

The problem is tone as much as substance. So long as politicians keep playing to their domestic galleries, the compromises Europe needs to thrive will remain elusive.

The transalpine rift started when Italy turned away a boat full of migrants, the Aquarius, after Malta had just done the same.

Spain eventually said it would welcome the vessel (the boat was rerouted towards the waters around Sardinia because of adverse sea conditions).

However, the Italian decision prompted furious reactions across the EU. In particular, French president Emmanuel Macron said it was “cynical and irresponsible”.

Rome reacted angrily. Its foreign ministry summoned a senior French diplomat for a dressing down. Giovanni Tria, Italy’s finance minister, cancelled a visit to Paris.

Italy’s deputy prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, said yesterday he still expects Macron to apologise for critical comments he made about Italian immigration policy.

“We’re waiting for an apology. If we get one, we can start down a new path,” Di Maio said in a radio interview. “There’s still time to take a step back, apologise, and then start over.”

Five hundred of the 629 passengers, including children and unaccompanied minors, were transferred on Tuesday from the overloaded Aquarius, four days after the initial rescue, to a flotilla of boats to complete their journey to Spain.

More than 600,000 migrants have landed on Italy’s southern shores over the last five years and the country has long urged its EU partners to share the burden.

There’s little doubt that Matteo Salvini, Italy’s new home affairs minister and leader of the anti-immigration League, used the 629 migrants stranded at sea to score cheap political points.

However, the reaction from Paris was clumsy — and hypocritical. France has repeatedly turned back migrants who want to cross the Italian border, hiding behind an EU rule that says asylum seekers should be processed in the state where they first enter the bloc.

The global medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) criticised the Italian government’s response, accusing it of risking people’s safety and putting politics before lives.

Aloys Vimard, MSF’s project co-ordinator on board the Aquarius, said that the Italian coastguard had dropped 900 migrants off in Sicily on Wednesday morning, while those on the NGO rescue ship had been turned away from Italian ports.

“This should not be a precedent: Rescued people should be taken to the nearest available port,” he said.

“More than 900 people are disembarking in Catania, Sicily, and we’re a bit concerned that Italy has been toying with the lives of 629 rescued people by denying them disembarkation at the closest safe port. There’s a need for politicians to discuss this and for the European Union to find a dignified solution for these vulnerable people.

“We are very, very concerned about the situation because political considerations are being prioritised over the safety over hundreds of vulnerable people.”

Italy has punched well above its weight in rescuing migrants from the Mediterranean, receiving precious little help from the rest of the EU. However irresponsible Salvini’s behaviour — and troubling the signal about the populist government’s attitude towards migrants — Macron could have let this one pass.

His reaction was diplomatically inept too. Rome’s new rulers thrive on attacks from abroad, which Salvini and his ilk depict as insults to Italy’s sovereignty.

The best course of action, as shown in a recent interview with Olaf Scholz, Germany’s finance minister, is to steer clear of public criticism and simply recall that all countries have obligations to meet. The irony here is that neither Rome nor Paris ended up offering to rescue the migrants stranded at sea. It was Madrid.

Macron missed a good opportunity to shut up.

None of this is to exonerate Italy. The continuous lashing out at other countries could take a toll diplomatically.

Since the formation of the government, Rome has indulged in angry spats with Tunisia, Malta, and France over refugees, and relentlessly criticised Germany about the economy. Tria has been a welcome exception.

The attacks may play well at home, but might be counter-productive in the long run.

A lot depends, of course, on what the populists actually want to achieve during their time in power. Maybe the Five Star Movement and League would like to provoke their European partners to such an extent that Italy is pushed out of the EU and the eurozone — creating an ‘Ital-exit’ by the back door. But if that’s not what they have in mind, they will need allies rather than sparring partners.

It’s reasonable to want to change the so-called Dublin regulation to achieve a fairer distribution of asylum seekers, but this needs the backing of other countries. On the economy, Italy requires support to bring about more financial risk-sharing across the eurozone, including a joint guarantee on bank deposits and, eventually, a eurozone treasury.

With Germany very sceptical about these plans, Italy’s best hope is Macron and his dreams of closer monetary union.

Unfortunately, the transalpine rift confirms a sad truth about the EU. While countries need each other to find answers to the problems affecting their voters, with immigration among the thorniest transnational issues, politicians will always pander to their domestic audience.

That’s how they win and lose elections. Yet Britain’s constant sniping at the EU has already helped push that country towards its vote to leave. Without some careful leadership on both sides, this could happen again.

The global medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) criticised the Italian government’s response, accusing it of risking people’s safety and putting politics before lives.Aloys Vimard, MSF’s project co-ordinator on board the Aquarius, said the Italian coastguard had dropped 900 migrants off in Sicily on Wednesday morning, while those on the NGO rescue ship had been turned away from Italian ports.“This should not be a precedent:

Rescued people should be taken to the nearest available port,” he told a newspaper.

“More than 900 people are disembarking in Catania, Sicily, and we’re a bit concerned that Italy has been toying with the lives of 629 rescued people by denying them disembarkation at the closest safe port.

"There’s a need for politicians to discuss this and for the European Union to find a dignified solution for these vulnerable people.

“We are very, very concerned about the situation because political considerations are being prioritised over the safety over hundreds of vulnerable people.”

- Bloomberg

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