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Macron 'never meant to offend' Italy with migrant comments

© POOL/AFP/File | Macron and Conte will meet for talks over lunch on Friday

PARIS (AFP) - 

French President Emmanuel Macron attempted to resolve tensions with Italy on Thursday, saying he never meant to cause offense by criticising its rejection of a migrant ship in remarks that sparked fury in Rome.

Macron had on Tuesday ignited the worst Franco-Italian diplomatic spat in years by accusing Rome of "cynicism and irresponsibility" for refusing to take in 629 migrants left stranded on a rescue ship that was eventually welcomed by Spain.

Rome summoned France's ambassador over Macron's comments and suggested a planned meeting between Macron and Italian President Giuseppe Conte in Paris on Friday could be cancelled unless Paris issued an "official apology".

As the war of words intensified, Italy's new economy minister shelved a meeting Wednesday with his French counterpart in Paris.

But the tensions appeared to have ebbed after a telephone call Wednesday night between Macron and Conte.

"The president stressed that none of his comments were intended to offend Italy and the Italian people," Macron's office said in a statement.

Friday's lunch meeting between the two leaders will go ahead as planned, the statement added.

The plight of the Aquarius rescue ship has shone a light on the failure of EU members to band together in the face of an unprecedented influx of migrants arriving across the Mediterranean since 2015.

Under EU rules, migrants must apply for asylum in the European country where they first arrive, putting pressure on Italy and Greece, the main entry points for people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

An EU scheme to distribute migrants equitably around the bloc has failed miserably, with central European members flatly refusing the quotas and others, including France, falling far short of their allocated target.

On Wednesday, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz hailed cooperation between the hardline interior ministers of Austria, Germany and Italy on the question of migrants.

"We believe an axis of the willing is needed to fight illegal migration," he said.

More than 700,000 migrants have landed in Italy since 2013.

Many West Africans have continued on to France, only to be sent back to Italy to have their asylum claims processed there.

In a swipe at Macron, Italy's government said Tuesday it would not accept "hypocritical lessons from countries that have preferred to look the other way on immigration".

Macron told Conte he has "always defended the need for greater European solidarity with the Italian people" and called for closer cooperation between Rome and Paris to try to check the migrant flows at their source -- currently mainly in Africa.

- 'Making a mockery of Italy' -

France's European Affairs minister Nathalie Loiseau on Thursday defended France's record on taking in migrants following criticism of Macron's initial silence on the plight of the Aquarius.

"France last year received a record number of asylum seekers," she said, referring to the 100,000 asylum requests received by the country.

France, she said, had also taken the second-biggest share of migrants relocated from Greece and Italy.

"We're doing a lot but it's true: Europe must do more and must do better to help Italy," she said.

The issue of how to share the migrant burden is expected to dominate an EU summit at the end of June.

Italy's deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio struck a combative tone on Thursday.

"The day when people thought they could make a mockery of Italy is over," Di Maio, leader of the Five Star Movement that shares power with the far-right League party, was quoted by Agi news agency as saying.

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© 2018 AFP