‘Does Paris think it’s normal?’: Italy’s Salvini rages after French police dump migrants in Italian woods

Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini on Tuesday hit out at President Emmanuel Macron after French police were caught dumping migrants in Italian woods. He asked: "Does Paris, which claims to be civil, find it normal to throw people into the woods?."

'Does Paris think it's normal?': Italy's Salvini rages after French police dump migrants in Italian woods
Photo: AFP

Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini on Tuesday hit out at President Emmanuel Macron after French police were caught committing the “unprecedented offence” of dumping migrants in Italian woods.

Salvini (pictured below), also deputy prime minister and head of the anti-immigrant League party, on Monday demanded a “clear response” after French authorities admitted to returning migrants to Italy in “error”.

A French police van was seen on Friday driving into Italy to return recently-arrived migrants to the town of Claviere.

“It was an error to enter Italian territory without the authorisation of the Italian police,” said Cecile Bigot-Dekeyzer, the top official in the Hautes-Alpes region.  

“The police had no right to enter Italian territory,” the prefect said.

An outraged Salvini batted away that explanation, while France said the incident should be “kept in perspective”.

“Abandoning migrants in an Italian wood can't be just a mistake or an incident,” Salvini said on social media. “What happened in Claviere is an unprecedented offence towards our country.”

“Does Paris, which claims to be civil, find it normal to throw people into the woods?… We're dealing with an international shame, and Mr Macron can't pretend he doesn't know. We won't accept any excuses,” Salvini wrote.

'It was a mistake'

“Let's keep this in perspective,” an official in the French president's office told journalists on Tuesday.

“It was a mistake, the authorities have admitted that. There was an incursion, not planned or according to procedure, into Italian territory, where two people were dropped off.”

Thousands of migrants are caught each year trying to enter France and returned to the Italian border. Last year AFP journalists saw French police dropping off migrants in front of Bardonecchia train station, in Italy.

A source close to Macron slammed Salvini's “essentially individual political exploitation” of the incident.

Italian Prime Minister “Giuseppe Conte hasn't turned this incident into proof of a crisis,” the French presidency said.

“We manage our shared border together and there are occasional small regrettable incidents on both sides.”

Relations between Rome and Paris have been increasingly tense in recent months, with Italy's populist government accusing France and others of failing to share the burden of the 700,000 migrants and asylum seekers that have crossed the Mediterranean to come to Italy since 2013.

French police in March sparked outrage by carrying out identity checks at Bardonecchia station, with the Italian foreign ministry summoning the French ambassador to protest.

In June, Macron criticised Salvini for closing Italian ports to the Aquarius migrant rescue boat, prompting a fresh summoning of the ambassador.

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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.