By NICOLE WINFIELD
ROME (AP) — Italy escalated its quarrel with France over migration Wednesday, challenging the bordering country to take in more asylum-seekers and demanding an apology after the French president accused the new Italian government of irresponsible behavior for refusing entry to a rescue ship with hundreds of migrants aboard. Interior Minister Matteo Salvini chided French President Emmanuel Macron by name during a speech before Parliament’s upper chamber, while Italian news reports said a meeting between Macron and Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte planned for Friday now was in doubt.
“I speak in the name of a government, but I also have the aim of speaking for a people who have nothing to learn from anyone about generosity, volunteerism, welcome and solidarity,” Salvini, the leader of the anti-migrant League party, said to applause in the Senate chamber.
In other signs of the continuing clash, Italy summoned the French ambassador for consultations, canceled a planned meeting between finance ministers and warned that diplomatic relations between the two European Union members had been compromised.
Italy has received both criticism and praise for turning away the Aquarius rescue ship over the weekend as it made its way across the Mediterranean Sea carrying 629 migrants.
Rome says the rescue vessel’s passengers never were in danger and argues that other European countries must share the work of welcoming would-be asylum-seekers. Two Italian naval vessels are escorting the ship to Spain after the Socialist government of new Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez offered the Aquarius safe harbor Monday. The Aquarius and two Italian ships that took on some of the 629 passengers are expected to arrive in Valencia on Saturday night, weather conditions permitting, said SOS Mediterranee co-founder Sophie Beau, whose charity operates the aid ship. If the timeline holds, that would be a week after the Aquarius first sought permission to dock in Italy. The port of Valencia is some 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) from where the vessel had been on standby.
“It’s a relief for everyone, our teams and of course above all for the survivors, to know that they are finally allowed to head to a safe port in Europe,” Beau told reporters in Marseille, France. Lashing out at the French government, Salvini said France had taken in only a fraction of the 9,816 migrants it had pledged to accept under a 2015 EU relocation plan. The EU plan, which was intended to relieve pressure on Italy and Greece, has largely flopped, with only a handful of countries receiving their share of newcomers. “So I ask President Macron to pass from words to action and tomorrow morning, welcome the 9,000 France promised to welcome as a sign of concrete generosity and not just words,” Salvini said.
France has admitted 635 migrants under the terms of the plan, according to EU figures.
The line Italy drew with the Aquarius appeared to be a tactic by the populist government sworn in this month to force Europe’s hand at a summit of EU leaders in Brussels set for June 28-29. Italy for years has complained that it has been left largely alone to manage Europe’s migrant crisis, but the new government says its firm stance has finally gotten the point across. “I think we’ve never been so central and so heard as we have been over the last hours,” Salvini told the senators, adding that sympathetic officials from Germany and elsewhere had contacted him to applaud his position. Salvini also accused France of having turned back 10,249 migrants at Italy’s northern border since January, “including women, children and disabled people.”
The border crossing point at Ventimiglia has been the scene of protests and desperation for years as France refused to let in migrants, many of them seeking to reach family in France or Germany. Austria’s conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who since December has led a coalition government with the anti-migration Freedom Party, proposed the idea Wednesday of an “axis of the willing” — made up of Rome, Vienna and Berlin — to cooperate in tackling illegal immigration. Salvini has accused European aid groups of essentially operating taxi services for Libya-based human traffickers and said Italy will now refuse their rescue ships entry. Italian maritime vessels that have picked up Europe-bound migrants in the Mediterranean still are entering the ports; on Wednesday, an Italian coast guard vessel docked in Catania, Sicily with 932 migrants on board.
Still at sea were 41 migrants rescued Tuesday by the U.S. Navy vessel Trenton, which was in the Mediterranean for what the U.S. 6th Fleet said was a routine operation. German aid group Sea-Watch said the migrants were picked up after their rubber dinghy sank and the Navy also had recovered the bodies of 12 people. Sea Watch confirmed it had space and food for 41 passengers, but said it declined to take the migrants from the U.S. Navy ship because Italy had refused to assign the group’s rescue vessel a port where it could dock.
The U.S. Sixth Fleet said it was coordinating with its partners on where the migrants will go next. Italy’s argument with France came after Macron on Tuesday blasted what he called Italy’s cynicism and irresponsibility in turning away the Aquarius.
The French president’s office said France didn’t want to “start a precedent” that would allow some European countries to breach international laws and rely on other EU member states to take in migrants. The French government was more conciliatory Wednesday, when the Foreign Ministry said France recognized the burden Italy has carried. Macron and new Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte were scheduled to meet in Paris on Friday, but Italian news agency ANSA said Wednesday the meeting might be postponed because the conditions weren’t right. Conte’s office refused to confirm the report. Earlier in the day, the Italian Foreign Ministry said it had summoned the French ambassador to complain that the French comments about the Aquarius were “unacceptable.”
It added that Italy was waiting for French to take action to “heal the situation that has been created.” Under the EU’s asylum laws — currently the subject of a major political dispute and under revision — migrants must apply for asylum in the country where they first enter Europe. In practice, the policy has placed a heavy burden on Italy and Greece, where hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers have arrived in recent years. A boat loaded with 55 people who were thought to be Syrian refugees landed Wednesday on the northwest coast of Cyprus, a Mediterranean island split into ethnically Greek and Turkish sides. A police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, told the Associated Press there were 54 men and one woman aboard the boat. The U.N. refugee agency has said that approximately 1,900 migrants came to Cyprus in about 40 boat trips since 2015.