The European Commission said on Friday (24 August) it will not bow to threats such as those made by Italian deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio, who warned his country could stop paying into the EU budget unless other member states agreed to take in migrants held on a coastguard ship in Sicily.
Four days after Italy’s Diciotti coastguard vessel docked in Catania, 150 adult migrants remained on deck. After seeing hundreds of thousands of sea arrivals in recent years, Italy wants other EU countries to accept them.
Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio said on Thursday the Italian government could suspend funding to the EU unless the migrants being held on the ship are shared among other member states.
Di Maio is the leader of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, which is in a coalition government with the far-right League (Lega) and its leader, Matteo Salvini, who has championed a hard line against immigration since taking office in June.
The Commission usually refrains from commenting on other people’s comments, even when they are made by high ranking politicians. This time, however, it made an obvious exception.
“Let’s not engage in finger-pointing. We also believe unconstructive comments, let alone threats, are not helpful and will not get us any closer to a solution. The European Union is a community of rules and it operates on the basis of rules, not threats,” Commission spokesperson Alexander Winterstein stated at the daily midday briefing.
“Finding a solution for the people on board is our main priority. That is what we are focused on and that is what we think everybody else should be focused on”, he said.
Winterstein also conveyed the message that the EU executive was only helping member states find a solution, and the issue was not one of “Commission versus somebody else”, but rather one in which member states need to find a solution.
The spokesperson also said the Commission wanted a more durable solution than a “ship-by-ship troubleshooting”.
Asked if there was a precedent for a member state refusing to pay its EU dues, Winterstein made it clear that this had never been the case.
Answering another question, he said that member states pay their contribution to the EU budget on a monthly basis, but refrained to comment on what would happen if they omitted to do so.
While Winterstein spoke, a meeting at “Sherpa” level involving 12 member states was taking place to discuss issues related to sharing the migrant burden with Italy. They include Italy, Malta, Greece, Spain, Germany, France and Austria.
Di Maio announced on Friday that Italy would take a “hard line” with the Commission at the Sherpa meeting.
“The soft line does not work, the hard line will be to withhold funds if they don’t listen to us,” he said on Italian television, as quoted by Reuters.