Robert Harneis –TDO- (FRANCE) - The case of the rescue ship Aquarius has brought the EU to the brink of a major crisis. The ship operated by the NGOs SOS Mediterranean and Doctors Without Borders was carrying 629 illegal immigrants including pregnant women and children. The new Italian government closed its ports and was fiercely criticized for it by its French counterparts. President Macron said Italy was “playing politics” by refusing to take in the migrants who were rescued off the Libyan coast. His spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said the he recalled that "in cases of distress, those with the nearest coastline have a responsibility to respond. There is a degree of cynicism and irresponsibility in the Italian government's behavior," he quoted President Macron as saying.

Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League as well as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior made short work of the French criticisms. He wrote on Facebook, “Malta takes in nobody. France pushes people back at the border, Spain defends its frontier with weapons. From today, Italy will also start to say no to human trafficking, no to the business of illegal immigration.”

In retaliation for the French President’s comments, Finance chief Giovanni Tria pulled out of a meeting with Bruno Le Maire, scheduled for Wednesday afternoon in Paris, according to an Italian Treasury official. Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi summoned senior French diplomat Claire Raulin, telling her that French public comments “are jeopardizing relations between Italy and France,” according to a statement from his ministry. Italian Prime Minister Conte threatened to cancel a meeting with Macron this Friday. 

“Our actions don’t deserve to be described in such terms by figures in the French government who I hope will apologize,” Salvini, 45, told senators. He said migration had become “an invasion managed by criminals,” adding that his government was “behaving coherently, with dignity and humanely.”

Salvini called on Macron to welcome “tomorrow morning” more than 9,000 migrants he said France was due to take in over three years. “France tells us we are cynical, but from Jan. 1 to May 31 it has pushed back across the borders 10,249 people, including women and handicapped children.” Since 2016 France has re-imposed border controls at its border with Italy, seeking to prevent migrants crossing into France.

The Aquarius is now sailing to Spain after the country agreed to welcome the ship. Salvini targeted not just Macron but sarcastically thanked Spain and “the good heart of Prime Minister Sanchez.” But he added that he hoped Pedro Sanchez would continue to be generous also in coming weeks, as Italy has welcomed 170,000 migrants and Spain 16,000.

The Five Star Movement’s leading MEP Laura Agea joined in the assault on Macron for delivering “ethical lessons” to Italy and not addressing the real issues of the migration crisis.

She said: “From 2014 to 2017, a total of 624,689 migrants have reached Italy by boats. Even though behind every arrival there is a smuggler and a well-organized racket, Italy has welcomed and rescued hundreds of thousands of people fleeing from wars and misery. She added “Italy has already played its part in this matter. Merkel and Macron have repeatedly admitted that Italy has been left alone. The present "government of change" will not allow it anymore.

The Macron-Conte meeting went ahead after Macron backtracked on his earlier critical remarks.  Interior Minister Matteo Salvini had demanded an apology and said Conte would be right to cancel the visit unless this was forthcoming. However, in a call during Thursday night phone call, Macron "stressed that he never said any expression aimed at offending Italy and the Italian people," said a statement by the Italian premier's office. "The President of the French Republic recalled that he has always defended the need for greater European solidarity towards Italy".

Only one week after its formation the new Italian government has made it clear it has no intention of being pushed around by other European governments on illegal immigration. No doubt the same will apply to the problem of the Euro and continuing Russian sanctions, Italy’s other two major grievances with the EU.

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