PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron blasted Italy for its "irresponsibility" on Tuesday (Jun 12) after it turned away a rescue boat carrying African migrants, exposing deep tensions in the European Union over the issue.
The decision by Italy to stop the Aquarius rescue boat landing at the weekend with 629 migrants on board has created the first serious clash between the country's new far-right/populist government and its EU partners.
During a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Macron accused Italy's leaders of "cynicism and irresponsibility" and said they had broken international maritime law by refusing the boat the right to dock.
"In cases of distress, those with the closest coastline have a responsibility to respond," spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said in unusually harsh criticism by Paris of its southern neighbour.
For years, Italy has pleaded with its EU partners for help with a massive influx of arrivals from Africa that has seen 700,000 people cross the Mediterranean and land in the country since 2013.
Under existing rules, countries where migrants first arrive are required to process their asylum requests, placing the burden on Italy in particular, as well as fellow southern countries Greece and Spain.
EU leaders in December set an end-of-June deadline for an overhaul of these so-called "Dublin rules", but they have been in deadlock for two years and there is little sign of a breakthrough.
Attempts to distribute refugees around the bloc's 28 members have consistently failed, with the surge in immigration fuelling anti-immigration, far-right political parties across Europe.
An Italian suggestion last year that rescue boats should be able to land migrants in other ports along the Mediterranean, such as those in France, was also rejected by its EU partners.
The new government in Rome, which includes the far-right League party, came to power pledging to stop the arrivals and carry out mass deportations that could see hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants expelled.
Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, the League leader, said last week that he would not allow Italy to become "Europe's refugee camp".
He has also taken aim at Mediterranean island Malta for failing to allow in rescue boats and has criticised French reinforcements at its border with Italy which result in many migrants being turned back.
EU FOUNDATIONS AT RISK?
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel faced serious pressure on Tuesday from conservative allies in her coalition to take a firmer line on immigration which would also see migrants turned back at the border.
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, from Merkel's Bavarian allies CSU, cancelled plans to present his "master plan" which was expected to propose toughening controls.
Merkel has resisted this because it would shift the problem to Germany's neighbours -- Austria in particular-- and she has pleaded for burden-sharing and a new EU force to police the bloc's external borders.
"I'll tell you bluntly: if we cannot come up with a response to the migration challenges the very foundations of the EU will be at stake," she warned last week.
Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have consistently either refused outright or resisted taking in refugees under a contested EU quota system.
The issue is set to figure prominently at a June 28-29 summit in Brussels where EU members were supposed to be unveiling a blueprint for reforming and deepening links between the 19 countries that share the euro currency.
Macron has pushed for greater integration, but the creation of a new eurosceptic and far-right government in Rome had been expected to complicate efforts even before Tuesday's flare-up.
"You can't create a precedent that will enable one European country to offload onto other European countries," French spokesman Griveaux said on Tuesday. "We need to show solidarity, which Italy has not shown."
A spokesman for Macron's Republic on the Move party said earlier that the Italian government's policy was "sickening."
"The position, the line of the Italian government is sickening. It's unacceptable to play politics with human lives which is what is happening at the moment," Gabriel Attal told the Public Senat channel.
The 629 migrants on board the Aquarius ship - including pregnant women and scores of children - were heading for Spain on Tuesday after being rescued off the Libyan coast over the weekend.
Spain's new Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez stepped in on Monday, offering the boat safe harbour in the eastern port city of Valencia.
He said there was a moral "obligation to help to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe."