Italy has postponed high-level discussions with France on Wednesday after French President Emmanuel Macron criticized Rome for refusing to take in a migrant rescue ship full of 629 shipwrecked North Africans - forcing it to divert to Valencia, Spain. After the ship ran out of supplies, the Italian Navy agreed to escort them across the Mediterranean.
Italy's new Economy Minister Giovanni Tria said he was cancelling a meeting with his French counterpart Bruno le Maire in Paris. The French economy ministry later said the ministers had "agreed that Mr Tria will come to Paris in the coming days". -AFP
Italy's decision to refuse the migrants came after their new Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, said in early June that "the good times for illegals are over" - writing an urgent letter ordering Malta to accept the 629 migrants picked up by the non-governmental organization (NGO) ship MV Aquarius, run by the group SOS Mediterranee. Salvini called Malta the "safest port" for the passengers, advising that Rome would not offer refuge. After Malta refused leading to several days in limbo, Spain agreed to take the passengers.
In response to the ordeal, French President Emmanuel Macron accused Italy of "cynicism and irresponsibility," adding that their EU neighbor is "playing politics" with the refugees. Meanwhile Gabriel Attal, the spokesman for Macron's party, called Italy's actions "nauseating".
Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini responded - saying on Tuesday that he would not "accept hypocritical lessons from countries that have preferred to look the other way on immigration," and adding on Wednesay that unless France issues an "official apology" for Macron's inflammatory comments, a Friday meeting between Italian Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte and Macron should be canceled.
"If an official apology doesn't arrive, prime minister Conte would be right not to go to France," Salvini told reporters after he demanded that France take in more migrants.
"The statements around the Aquarius affair that come from France are surprising and show a serious lack of knowledge about what is really happening, said Salvini.
"The Italian government has never abandoned the almost 700 people aboard the Aquarius," it said in a statement on Tuesday. "After the refusal of Malta to allow the people aboard the Aquarius to disembark there, we received an unprecedented gesture of solidarity from Spain. The same cannot be said of France, which has often adopted much more rigid and cynical immigration policies." -Thelocal.fr
France snarked back, with a French presidental source telling AFP that they hadn't received a "formal demand from Italy for an apology."
According to the Asylum Information Databse, France had a total of 100,412 applications for asylum in 2017 and had a rejection rate of 73.2%, while Italy had 130,119 applications in 2017 and a much lower rejection rate of 58.2%. Italy has accepted over 700,000 migrants since 2013.
Speaking to the Senate Wednesday, Salvini accused France of only receiving 640 of the 9,816 migrants it had promised to take from Italy.
He said that between January and May, France had sent 10,249 migrants back to Italy.
He demanded that France move from "words to action and offer a sign of generosity" by taking more in.
Salvini has accused charities that rescue migrants of working with human traffickers but said Italy would not stop rescuing migrant boats itself. -AFP
In December, EU leaders set an end-of-June deadline for an overhaul to rules governing Europe's acceptance of migrants - most of whom arrive from North Africa. The International Organization for Migration warned on Tuesday against the closing of EU borders.
"I fear a major tragedy if states start refusing to accept rescued migrants," its director general William Lacy Swing said.
"Closing ports, whoever does it, threatens rescue at sea, as we have seen in the case of the Aquarius, and therefore is not the right solution," UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi told reporters in Geneva, however he added that "the reason why Italy said it had closed ports is something we need to listen to".