By Steve Scherer and Philip Pullella
ROME (Reuters) – Italy summoned France’s envoy on Wednesday and angrily rejected French criticism of its immigration policies, escalating a diplomatic standoff that is widening one of Europe’s main political fault lines.
A day after French President Emmanuel Macron said Rome had acted with “cynicism and irresponsibility” by closing its ports to a migrant ship, Italy’s economy minister canceled a Paris meeting with his counterpart, and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte weighed postponing a meeting with Macron scheduled for Friday.
“We have nothing to learn about generosity, voluntarism, welcoming, and solidarity from anyone,” far-right Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini told the Senate.
Salvini, who is also deputy premier and the leader of the anti-immigrant League party, called on France to apologize and said he was not prepared to take criticism from a country which regularly stopped migrants on their shared border.
France said it has received no formal request from Italy for an apology, and that it believed the planned meeting between Macron and Conte would go ahead.
Visiting western France, Macron initially did not respond to questions on the issue, but later told reporters: “We must never give in to emotions, which some people manipulate.”
Macron suggested Rome was trying to make a high-profile break with previous governments in refusing to accept the ship instead of tackling the underlying problems of development and security in migrants’ home countries and smuggling rings.
The row centers on the charity ship Aquarius, which both Italy and Malta refused to let dock at their ports. It was carrying 629 migrants and is now heading to Spain, which offered safe harbor, escorted by two Italian ships
SOS Mediterranee and Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), co-operating the Aquarius, are both well-known French charities.
France was not alone in its criticism.
The U.N. refugee agency’s chief, Italian national Filippo Grandi, told Reuters it was “shameful” that two European countries refused to take in vulnerable migrants.
How Europe should share the responsibility of handling migrants trying to get into the bloc from war zones and poor countries, largely across Africa and the Middle East, remains a vexed question.
Many states have fallen short of their pledge, made in 2015, to take some asylum seekers from Italy and Greece – the first port of call for most migrants given their long Mediterranean coastlines – and share the cost of their care.
Salvini’s League scored its best result in the March national election, partly on pledges to deport hundreds of thousands of migrants and halt the flow of newcomers, and has formed a coalition with the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement.
More than 1.8 million migrants have entered Europe since 2014, and Italy is now sheltering more than 170,000 asylum seekers, as well as an estimated 500,000 unregistered migrants.
France sought to take a more conciliatory tone on Wednesday. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll said France was “fully aware of the burden that the migration pressure is placing on Italy” and that it was committed to cooperating with Rome on immigration.
Economy Minister Giovanni Tria spoke with his French counterpart after cancelling his meeting, a French finance ministry official said, and both agreed to reschedule their session in coming days.
But Italy’s foreign minister, Enzo Moavero, kept up the barrage by telling a French envoy that Macron’s comments were “unjustifiable” and had compromised bilateral relations.
A government source said Conte still did not see the right “conditions” for a Friday meeting with Macron.[nR1N1C401H]
Salvini told the Senate he was open to a possible “axis” with Germany and Austria on immigration ahead of a key EU summit at the end of June that will, in part, consider changes to EU asylum law to better share the burden of incoming migrants.
“With my German and Austrian colleagues… we will propose a new (immigration) initiative,” Salvini said, adding that it would apply both to the EU’s external borders and to how the bloc’s countries manage migrants internally.
After meeting in Berlin, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer echoed Salvini. Kurz said Europe needed an “axis of the willing in the fight against illegal migration”.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has drawn criticism from her own conservative party for her open-door migrant policy, adopted in 2015, which also provoked a rise in support for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
On Wednesday, she said discussions between Italy, Germany and Austria were about finding “a Europe-wide solution… Therefore I think that there must be many such kinds of cooperation, not just in this one direction”.
As EU politicians have dithered or traded blame, refugees have continued to arrive.
On Wednesday morning, an Italian coast guard vessel with 937 migrants and two bodies aboard docked in Catania, Sicily, while the Aquarius headed into increasingly rough seas on its way to Valencia, where it is due to arrive on Saturday.
A Dutch-flagged humanitarian ship, the Sea Watch 3, was called by a U.S. Navy vessel to take on board 41 survivors and 12 bodies recovered after a shipwreck on Tuesday.
However, the Sea Watch is still waiting to pick them up after asking for a written guarantee that it will be allowed to dock in an Italian port.
Graphic – The course of the Aquarius rescue ship: https://bit.ly/2LNT0mi
(Additional reporting by Angelo Amante, Giuseppe Fonte and Crispian Balmer in Rome, Myriam Rivet, Sarah White, and Leigh Thomas in Paris, Madeline Chambers and Tom Koerkemeier in Berlin; Editing by Mark Heinrich)