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ROME — Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has accused France of treason, as the two governments clash over who should take rescue boats full of migrants.
Paris froze plans to take in 3,500 Italian migrants, under a European redistribution deal, and suggested other countries do the same, after Italy refused to allow the ship from the NGO Ocean Viking to land, directing him to France instead. French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin also announced his intention to fortify the border with Italy against migrant crossings.
At a press conference in Rome on Friday, Meloni blamed the incident on “a misunderstanding” and said “the demand that [other countries] isolating Italy betrays, in my opinion, the European dynamic… of solidarity and sharing.
After promising to defend Italy’s interests in Europe, just weeks after taking office, Meloni now finds himself embroiled in a diplomatic spat that threatens to damage Rome’s interests and leave it isolated in Europe.
Meloni said she was struck by the “aggressive reaction” of the French government, “which is incomprehensible and unjustified” and pointed out that Italy has received 90,000 migrants from the Mediterranean this year, including 600 from NGO ships the same day than France. agreed to take 234 on the Ocean Viking.
A voluntary migrant redistribution program agreed by EU countries in June fell far short of its goals, Meloni said. Out of 8,000 people who should have left Italy, only 117 were relocated, including 38 to France.
Meloni said Italy could not be the port of Europe for all migrants arriving from Africa. She called for a European naval mission to block departures from North Africa and open hotspots to identify migrants.
Just weeks after a right-wing coalition came to power, the opportunity to demonstrate its hard line on migrants has proven irresistible.
Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi, a technocrat close to the Anti-Immigration League, condemned migrant rescue ships that were “not in line with the spirit of European border control rules” and refused permission to berth several NGO vessels. He said migrants should seek asylum in the country where the NGO ship was registered.
In a week-long standoff with several lifeboats, Italy only allowed migrants deemed vulnerable to disembark, leading some on board to go on hunger strikes and throw themselves overboard .
After the departure of the Ocean Viking for France, the members of the coalition celebrated. Matteo Salvini, deputy prime minister and head of the League said: “The air has changed.” Maurizio Gasparri, a senator from Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, said: “The policy of determination on immigration is bearing fruit.
But the celebrations raised irritation in France, where the government had been criticized by far-right leader Marine Le Pen for being lenient on immigration. Meanwhile, in Brussels, the European Commission has reprimanded Italy, saying migrants must be allowed to disembark immediately.
Opposition analysts and politicians said the incident risked alienating allies and European institutions at a time when goodwill is essential for Italy as member states begin talks on reform EU fiscal rules.
Meloni chose Brussels as his first foreign trip as prime minister last week, assuring leaders that Italy would be a responsible European partner. She asked the Commission to adapt Italy’s post-pandemic economic recovery plan and to use the unspent 2014-2020 European structural funds for measures to combat energy prices, which would require a changes to EU rules.
The opposition warned that the incident would have repercussions.
Lia Quartapelle of the Left Democrats said Italy “needs alliances in Europe to deliver results – on fiscal rule reform, the SURE fund for the unemployed and energy security. Fighting with European countries during landings can be useful to gain a few decimals in the polls, but it harms Italy’s interests.
MEP Sandro Gozi, Italy’s former deputy minister for Europe, told France 24 that Meloni “pretends to cooperate with Europe” in Brussels, while in Rome she “continues to promote the propaganda of extreme right We Italians must be the first to respect European rules, because we are receiving unprecedented financial resources.
Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo, a lawyer and professor of asylum law at the University of Palermo, told POLITICO that Italy’s behavior “creates a big divide in Europe and concludes an agreement for a solution [on the migrant issue] further away.”
“Italy’s approach fosters disunity and could have a devastating effect on issues such as the recovery plan.”