Italy to suspend EU funding unless others take in migrants

Migrants pray as they wait to disembark from Italian Coast Guard ship Diciotti in the port of Catania, Italy, 22 August 2018. [Orietta Scardino/EPA/EFE]

The European Commission has called a meeting today (25 August) after Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio said the Italian government could suspend funding to the EU unless other member states agreed to take in migrants being held on a coastguard ship in Sicily.

Three 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.

The European Commission has said repeatedly this week that it is working to find an agreement. Other such deals were found in June and July for ships carrying rescued migrants that docked in both Italy and Malta.

“If tomorrow nothing comes out of a European Commission meeting on redistributing migrants from the Diciotti ship, the 5-Star and I will not be willing to give €20 billion each year to the EU,” Di Maio said in a video posted on Facebook.

For its part the European Commission said yesterday it wanted “a swift resolution so that the people on board can be safely disembarked as soon as possible”.

“We are stepping up our pro-active work to find a long-term, durable, European solution,” Commission spokesman Alexander Winterstein told reporters.

He added that a meeting of high-level representatives from around a dozen member states would be held on Friday to discuss the issue.

Di Maio is the leader of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, which is in a coalition government with the far-right League and its leader, Matteo Salvini, who has championed a hard line against immigration since taking office in June.

Di Maio said he agrees with Salvini’s position that the migrants should stay on the ship until there is an agreement in the EU, a day after the 5-Star speaker of the lower house of parliament criticized Salvini.

According to Italian media reports President Sergio Mattarella has privately expressed concerns that the row could damage Italy’s image abroad.

Salvini, who is also interior minister, was defiant on Thursday in the face of a criminal probe into possible kidnapping charges for forcing the migrants to remain on the vessel.

The chief prosecutor from the Agrigento court, Luigi Patronaggio, on Wednesday boarded the Diciotti and said afterwards he had opened a probe against “unknown” persons for holding the migrants against their will.

“There’s a court that is investigating whether those illegally on board the ship have been kidnapped,” Salvini said in a radio interview.

“I’m not unknown. My name is Matteo Salvini… I’m the Interior Minister and I think it is my duty to defend the security of this country’s borders.”

Hailing the Australian model

Salvini also tweeted that Italy would follow the Australian model, according to which migrants rescued at sea are not transferred on Australian territory.

Salvini meanwhile has renewed accusations that fellow EU states are shirking their responsibilities.

In a Facebook post he accused several European countries, including Germany and Spain, of reneging on an agreement to take migrants who were allowed to land in the Sicilian port of Pozzallo in July.

“Why should we trust them this time? Before asking for the disembarkation of the Diciotti, Europe should give us explanations. I’m not backing down.”

Thirteen of the some 190 migrants were permitted to disembark for health reasons on the island of Lampedusa before the vessel carried on to the Sicilian port of Catania.

Late Wednesday, Salvini agreed to allow 27 unaccompanied minors off the boat but the rest remain trapped on board, despite calls from the UNHCR and aid agencies for them to be allowed off.

Salvini insists those who remain on board are “illegal immigrants” and do not have the right to humanitarian protection accorded to refugees.

The nationalities of those still on board is not clear but according to Save the Children almost all of the children who were allowed off on Wednesday are from Eritrea, whose regime of compulsory military service has been likened to slavery by the UN.

‘Unfair and illegal’

But Salvini has thrived on the controversy and the opportunity to present himself as in tune with public opinion.

“There is an inquiry under way, we will see,” he said. “I have broad shoulders. I think the majority of Italians agree with me.”

Opinion polls suggest that his stance is benefiting the League, whose approval rating has risen to around 30 percent — 10 points up from its showing in March elections — and is now level with the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) with which it has formed a government.

If no European solution to the Diciotti case is found, Salvini has repeatedly threatened to send the migrants back to Libya.

“Either Europe begins to seriously defend its borders and shares the relocation of immigrants, or we will start taking them back to the port that they left,” he tweeted on Tuesday.

Mohamad Siala, foreign minister in Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), shot back late on Wednesday that such a move would be “unfair and illegal” given that Libya already has “more than 700,000 migrants” on its territory.

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