Diplomatic row between Italy, France highlights rising migration tensions

The spat between Rome and Paris involved the French Foreign Ministry summoning Italian Ambassador to France Teresa Castaldo to lodge a complaint.
Sunday 27/01/2019
Up in arms. Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini attends a news conference in Rome, January 17.    (AP)
Up in arms. Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini attends a news conference in Rome, January 17. (AP)

LONDON - A diplomatic row between Italy and France over migration and their respective involvement in Libya underscores the division at the heart of the European Union.

Libya has increasingly become a major sticking point between European countries. Italy recently accused France of not seeking to stabilise the North African country, which is a major route for illegal migration into Europe.

“In Libya, France has no interest in stabilising the situation, probably because it has oil interests that are opposed to those of Italy,” Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini told Canale 5 television in an interview aired January 22.

Since Italy’s government, a coalition between the far-right League led by Salvini and the populist anti-establishment Five Star Movement, was formed last April, Rome has pursued a brash foreign policy that often put it at odds with its more traditional European allies.

While Italy’s Eni and France’s Total have competing energy ventures in Libya, the major concern in Europe remains Libya’s role in facilitating illegal migration to Europe. The International Organisation for Migration said 116,959 migrants reached Europe by sea routes in 2018, mostly illegally crossing the Mediterranean from Libya.

Salvini’s comments stoked a war of words between Rome and Paris that had been initiated by Luigi Di Maio, economic development minister and leader of the Five Star Movement.

“If we have people who are leaving Africa now it’s because some European countries, and France in particular, have never stopped colonising Africa,” Di Maio said January 19 in a speech in central Italy.

Rome has called on the European Union to change its migration and asylum laws, which Italy says place an undue burden on so-called “front-line” countries such as Italy to receive and process illegal immigrants.

Italy recently indicated a possible alliance with Poland over a shared disillusionment with how the European Union is handling migration. Rome has also made overtures to other members of the Visegrad group — the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary — that have been vocal on the issue.

“The EU should sanction all those countries, like France, that are impoverishing African countries and obliging those people to leave. The place for African people is Africa and not the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea,” Di Maio said.

“If we want to stem the departure (of migrants), let’s start addressing this issue, let’s start coping with it also within the United Nations, not only at the EU-level. Italy has to make itself heard.”

Di Maio’s comments coincided with news that nearly 500 migrants were returned to Libya after they were picked up at sea trying to reach the European coast.

“People are returned to the country they try to flee, they are desperate,” Julien Raickman, head of mission in Libya for Doctors Without Borders, said in a release. “They need to be assisted and protected, not sent back into a cycle of detention.”

The organisation warned that “vulnerable refugees, migrants and asylum seekers” were being returned to Libya in violation of international law while the United Nations explicitly called on European countries not to return migrants rescued at sea to Libya.

Reports that more than 250 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean since the beginning of the year shocked many European capitals and redoubled criticism Rome has faced over its decision to close its ports to rescue boats.

“Politicians must stop using human beings for political point-scoring and to instead address this as a humanitarian issue, with saving lives the priority. Reducing arrivals cannot be the only barometer for success when people are drowning on Europe’s doorstep” said Charlie Yaxley, a spokesman for the UN refugee agency.

The spat between Rome and Paris involved the French Foreign Ministry summoning Italian Ambassador to France Teresa Castaldo to lodge a complaint.

“It’s not the first time the Italian authorities have made unacceptable and aggressive comments,” a French diplomatic source told Reuters.

Despite the move, senior Italian officials have shown little indication they intend to change their rhetoric about illegal migration. With European Parliament elections scheduled for May and far-right contenders such as Salvini’s League polling strongly, tough talk surrounding migration can be expected to increase.

“France has no reason to get upset because it pushed away tens of thousands of migrants [at the French border], abandoning them there as if they were beasts,” Salvini said in the Canale 5 interview. “I don’t take lessons on humanity and generosity from [French President Emmanuel] Macron.”