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IMMIGRATION

‘Irresponsible’: France blasts Italy but defends not taking in stranded migrant ship

French president Emmanuel Macron blasted Italy as "cynical and irresponsible" for refusing to offer safe harbour to the stranded migrant ship Aquarius, while the French government defended its own decision not to allow the ship to dock.

'Irresponsible': France blasts Italy but defends not taking in stranded migrant ship
Photo: AFP

French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday accused Italy of “cynicism and irresponsibility” over its refusal to take in hundreds of migrants stranded on a rescue ship in the Mediterranean, a government spokesman said.

Macron told a cabinet meeting that under maritime law, “in cases of distress, those with the closest coastline have a responsibility to respond,” spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said.

Earlier on Tuesday the French government defended its decision not to offer safe harbour to the stranded migrant ship Aquarius after local leaders on Corsica proposed opening one of their ports to the vessel.

Corsican leaders Gilles Simeoni and Jean-Guy Talamoni, the top politicians on the French Mediterranean island, tweeted their offer on Tuesday morning as uncertainty grew over the fate of the 629 people on board the ship.

But the central government in Paris criticised the gesture by the Corsican nationalists.

“[Simeoni] is taking a position without having any responsibility which is easy,” junior Europe and foreign affairs minister Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne told Sud Radio.

“What does international law say? They need to go to the port that is safest and closest. And we can see that Corsica is not the closest or the safest. Given the boat's location, it is between Italy and Malta,” he added. 

Both Italy and fellow EU member Malta have refused to accept the migrants who are now heading for the Spanish port of Valencia after the new Socialist government in Madrid agreed to take them in.

Italy's hardline immigration policy under its new populist government could have knock-on effects in neighbouring France, where President Emmanuel Macron has also tightened immigration laws to crack down on illegal arrivals.

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini — who is also deputy prime minister — has promised to deport hundreds of thousands of economic migrants, warning that Italy would not be “Europe's refugee camp”.

The country has been the main point of entry in Europe for migrants and refugees arriving from Africa in recent years, with 700,000 crossing the Mediterranean since 2013, often from war-wracked Libya.

Migrants shelter on the Aquarius boat. Photo: AFP

Italy policy 'sickening'

Any increase in arrivals in France would ring alarm bells for Macron who has worked hard to close down migration routes from Africa amid strong anti-immigration sentiment in France.

But a spokesman for Macron's Republic on the Move party said 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.

“I'm a spokesman for the party, not the government, but I can't imagine that France will not play a role in finding a humanitarian solution for this boat,” he said.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen called for the boats to “return where they came from” and said charities rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean were “the accomplices of the people-trafficking mafia.” 

Eric Ciotti, a prominent hard-right MP from the opposition Republicans party, also called on the government to take a tough line on the Aquarius. 

“No French port, not Corsica, not Nice, not Marseille,” he told CNews. 

“Of course we should save lives, naturally it's a priority and Europe must act. But the obvious solution is returning to the Tunisian coast or to the Libyan coast,” he said.

French charity defiant

The head of the French charity which charters the Aquarius migrant rescue ship said Tuesday that it would continue its operations despite the international standoff over the 629 people currently onboard.

The defiant comments from Sophie Beau, head of the charity SOS Mediterranee, suggest the row over the stranded ship could repeat itself — not least as migrant attempts to cross the Mediterranean increase in the warm summer months.

Beau told AFP a “one-off solution” had been found for the Aquarius after Spain offered to take in its passengers following refusals from the nearest countries, Italy and Malta.

But the charity's missions will continue “as long as there are people drowning in the Mediterranean, as long as we have the resources, and as long as we are able to act and we are not kicked out of the area,” she said.

“The rescues will continue and it is crucial that European countries talk amongst themselves to find acceptable solutions” to bring to shore migrants stranded in the Mediterranean, she said.

Beau said her charity, based in the southern French port city of Marseille, was acting under international law in giving “assistance to people in distress”.

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POLITICS

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.

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