ROME - Italy doubled down Friday on its new tough stance against immigrants, insisting it could not take “one more” refugee and warning that the immigration crisis could put the bloc’s survival at stake.
Just two days before a summit on the issue in Brussels, Italy’s 3-week-old populist government dug in its heels on campaign promises to stop the influx of immigrants, threatening to seize rescue ships or barring them from its ports.
“We cannot take in one more person,” Interior Minister Matteo Salvini told the German weekly Der Spiegel. “On the contrary, we want to send away a few.”
The far-right Salvini, who heads the anti-immigration League party and is also deputy prime minister, has come to personify Rome’s new confrontational and unbending stance.
It was he who barred the French NGO-run rescue ship Aquarius, carrying 629 immigrants, from docking in Italy this month, triggering an EU-wide dispute.
On Thursday, he turned his sights to the German NGO Mission Lifeline. “The illegal boat Lifeline is now in Maltese waters with its cargo of 239 migrants. For the safety of its crew and the passengers, we’ve asked Malta to open its ports,” Salvini wrote on Twitter. “Clearly, the boat should immediately be impounded and its crew arrested.”
But a source close to the Maltese government quoted by the Times of Malta newspaper said later Friday that Malta was “neither the coordinating authority nor one competent to carry out rescues.”
Salvini reacted strongly, saying, “If even one person was to get hurt on board this boat … we will hold Malta accountable.”
He also reiterated that the boat would not be allowed to dock in an Italian port.
Just two days before the informal talks on the immigration issue — called by Berlin and being attended by some 16 EU leaders — Salvini warned that nothing less than the EU’s future survival is at stake.
“Within a year it will be decided whether there will still be a united Europe or not,” Salvini told Der Spiegel.
Upcoming EU budget talks, as well as European Parliament elections in 2019, would each act as a litmus test for “whether the whole thing has become meaningless,” he said.
Sunday’s talks are supposed to prepare for a full summit later in the week, where all 28 EU leaders will discuss plans to overhaul the bloc’s asylum system, which has been under severe pressure since the immigration crisis exploded in 2015.
Nevertheless, German Chancellor Angela Merkel — who is facing a ferocious political backlash for letting in well over a million asylum-seekers into Europe’s biggest economy — played down expectations that a solution could be found quickly.
Speaking on a visit to Lebanon, Merkel said: “We know that no solution will be reached on Thursday and Friday at the level of the 28 member states … on the overall issue of migration.” Instead, she said, “bilateral, trilateral and multilateral” deals must be reached to tackle the issue.
But Salvini’s uncompromising line found an echo Friday when Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said he was also ready to start turning away immigrants if Berlin and Vienna did so, as Germany’s interior minister proposed earlier in the week.
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer warned on Monday that he would give Merkel a fortnight to find a European deal to curb new arrivals by the EU summit next Thursday and Friday, failing which he vowed to order border police to turn back immigrants.
“Italian ports are no longer at the disposal of traffickers. Open the Maltese ports! Open the French ports,” Salvini said earlier on Friday.
In a Facebook post on Thursday he vowed that “foreign NGO boats will never touch Italian soil again.”
Rome had briefly weighed boycotting Sunday’s summit but finally agreed to attend after reassurances from Merkel.
Italy had been riled because a leaked draft statement focused more on the redistribution of the immigrants once they had arrived in Europe, rather than on securing Europe’s borders.
But the government was placated after Merkel told them the text had been shelved.
Nevertheless, tensions continue to simmer very close to the surface, and tempers can flare up very quickly.
On Friday, Italy took offense when French President Emmanuel Macron likened rising nationalism and anti-migrant sentiment in Europe to “leprosy.”
“One day, he’s saying that he doesn’t want to offend Italy, and then the next, he’s talking about leprosy,” said Italy’s other deputy prime minister, Luigi di Maio, head of the populist M5S party.
“We may be leper populists,” Salvini said. “But I take the lessons from those who open their own ports. Welcome thousands of migrants and then we can talk.”