Luigi Di Maio, one of Italy’s deputy prime ministers, has threatened to take a “hard line” and not pay into the EU’s common coffers unless the bloc agrees to share the burden of migrants who arrive illegally.
“The soft line doesn’t work,” Di Maio said on Italian television on Aug. 24, “The hard line will be to withhold funds if they don’t listen to us.”
Di Maio’s comments were directed at members of the European Commission, the executive body of the EU, ahead of Friday’s emergency meeting in Brussels about the migrant crisis, including what to do with a group of asylum-seekers who were rescued off the coast of Sicily.
Nearly 200 people of unspecified nationality were rescued at sea by the Italian coast guard ship Diciotti on Aug. 15, and about 170 adults remain onboard, docked in the port of Catania, Sicily.
On Aug. 22, 27 unaccompanied minors, mostly from Eritrea, were allowed off the vessel, the BBC reported.
Meanwhile, the crisis talks in Brussels ended with no deal.
Spokesperson Alexander Winterstein said the European Commission was working on a solution to ease the burden on point-of-contact countries disproportionately encumbered by illegal migration, but he insisted that the EU would follow its rules on migration, rather than bow to threats.
“In Europe, threats are useless and don’t get you anywhere. The only way to solve a problem in Europe is to work together in a constructive manner and in good will. This is what the Commission has been trying to facilitate for a long time,” Winterstein said.
“The European Union is a community of rules and it operates on the basis of rules, not threats.”
Deep Divisions on Migrant Policy
The issue of what to do with asylum seekers has been intensely divisive, both in Italy and in the EU as a whole.
Approximately 300 “rice ball” protesters assembled on Wednesday near the Diciotti and held up “arancini”—traditional rice snacks offered to hungry guests—and called for the government to allow the migrants to disembark on humanitarian grounds.
Prosecutors have launched an inquiry against “unknown” individuals suspected of “illegal detention” of migrants, The Guardian reported, provoking pushback from Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.
“I heard that the prosecutor’s office in Agrigento has opened an investigation,” tweeted Salvini, who like Di Maio refuses to allow the migrants to disembark unless Brussels commits to distributing them among other EU countries.
“I also heard that the suspects are ‘unknown’ at the moment. But I’m not unknown. My name is Matteo Salvini, I’m the minister of the interior. Come on, try me too, I’m here.”
Opponents of illegal migration showed their support, tweeting “I stand with Salvini.”
Many Italians see their way of life threatened by the chaos of uncontrolled immigration and oppose migrants being allowed on shore without an EU-level burden-sharing arrangement.
The Front Line in Europe’s Migrant Crisis
Italy has been at the European front line in the migrant crisis, with over 640,000 illegal arrivals hitting its shores since 2014.
In an earlier video posted on Facebook, Di Maio said “If tomorrow nothing comes out of a European Commission meeting on redistributing migrants from the Diciotti ship, the 5-Star and I will not be willing to give 20 billion euros each year to the EU.”
Meanwhile, Winterstein told a press conference assembly in Brussels that he hoped a resolution would come soon.
“Finding a solution for the persons on board is our main priority. That is what we are focused on and that is also what we think everybody else should be focused on. Let’s not engage in finger-pointing. And we also believe that unconstructive comments, let alone threats, are not helpful and they will not get us any closer to a solution,” he said.
But for many in Italy, as in other countries at the external border of the EU, the consensus-building process in Brussels can seem intolerably long.
So, too, for people on the Diciotti, in limbo since Monday.
Reuters contributed to this report.