Italy’s populist government on Friday said it would pull EU funding unless it agrees to take some of the 150 people stranded on an Italian coast guard ship.
Dozens of people have been blocked at the Sicilian port of Catania on the Diciotti since Monday night, because Rome is refusing to allow them to disembark without commitments from the EU to take some of them in.
However, a high-level meeting of a dozen EU member states in Brussels on Friday, held to discuss what officials said was the broader issue of the disembarkation of migrants rescued at sea, failed to produce an immediate solution for the Diciotti migrants.
“The European Union has decided to turn its back on Italy once again,” Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio said on Facebook, adding that his nation had no choice but to “take a compensatory measure in a unilateral way.”
“They want the 20 billion euros [US$23.27 billion] paid by Italian citizens? Then let them demonstrate that they deserve it and that they are taking charge of a problem that we can no longer face alone. The borders of Italy are the borders of Europe,” he added.
Di Maio had earlier said that “if they decide nothing regarding the Diciotti and the redistribution of the migrants, I and the whole Five Star Movement [his party] will no longer be prepared to give 20 billion euros to the European Union every year.”
Under EU rules, people must seek asylum in their country of arrival, but Italy’s government has increasingly barred boats from docking at its ports.
Brussels quickly hit back at Di Maio’s comments.
“Unconstructive comments, let alone threats, are not helpful and they will not get us any closer to a solution,” European Commission spokesman Alexander Winterstein told a briefing. “The EU is a community of rules and it operates on the basis of rules, not threats.”
No deal was struck about the Diciotti migrants at the talks, as a source at the European Commission said: “This was not a meeting where decisions were taken.”
However, the source said they discussed “the need for a shared and rapid solution for the migrants on board of the Diciotti, as well as those most recently disembarked in Spain and Malta.”
EU figures for 2016 say Italy contributed just less than 14 billion euros to the EU budget — less than 1 percent of its gross national income — while the bloc spent 11.6 billion euros in Italy.
Di Maio said that Italy did not want the “mickey taken out of us by the union’s other countries” on the distribution of migrants.
“The EU was born of principles like solidarity. If it is not capable of redistributing 170 people, it has serious problems with its founding principles,” he said in an interview with state broadcaster RAI.
Italian media reported that some of the migrants had started a hunger strike over their treatment. The coast guard said they had “refused to eat breakfast” on Friday.
Prosecutors were traveling to Rome to question officials, including Italian Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini, about the illegal detention of those on board.
“If a judge wants to arrest me, I expect it, no problem,” Salvini said.
Salvini stopped the majority of the migrants from disembarking after they were rescued on Aug. 15.
His only concession was to allow 27 unaccompanied minors off the boat on Wednesday.
Opinion polls suggest that Salvini’s stance has boosted his far-right League party’s approval rating to about 30 percent — a more than 10 point jump from its showing in March’s election — and is now level with the Five Star Movement, with which it has governed Italy since early June.
Meanwhile, the French presidency called for a “coordinated, long-term European mechanism” to distribute migrants that would include Italy.
“There are forces in Italy that are looking to cooperate. We want to believe Italy wishes to play the game,” Elysee Palace said.
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