Europe’s diplomatic dispute over what to do with its “human tsunami” of north African migrants turned into a cross-border catfight this week, with Italy threatening to leave the EU and a German lawmaker accusing Rome of behaving like the mafia.
The spat, which had been simmering for weeks, turned truly sour Monday during a meeting of interior ministers in Luxembourg. With the recent spike in immigration at the top of the agenda, it was hoped that the group would find a solution to the continuing problem. Italy has seen some 26,000 undocumented migrants arrive on its shores since the start of the year, spurred by the widespread unrest in north Africa.
Instead, Italy went on the offensive, accusing its closest neighbours of not doing enough to help.
The Italian government’s immediate answer to the problem had been to strike a deal with Tunisia, where most of the migrants came from. The two countries agreed earlier this month that any new castaways would be sent back to their homeland, but that those who had entered before April 5 would be given a six-month residency permit allowing them to travel freely in the border-free Schengen zone.
But Italy had seemingly failed to take the legal implications into account. Under European law, the country where migrants first arrive is obliged to determine their status before allowing them to leave. Those entitled to apply for the status of asylum seekers are sent to a detention centre, whereas economic migrants are returned immediately to their country of origin.
Gerd Leers, the Dutch minister for immigration and asylum, described Italy's surprise agreement with Tunisia as “passing its problems on to all the others without prior notice".
German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich also denounced the deal, saying: "We cannot accept numerous economic migrants arriving in Europe through Italy. This is why we expect Italy to respect the existing legal framework."
In response, France tightened controls at its border with Italy, threatening to send any such migrants back across the border. Germany and Austria said they would follow suit.
Outraged, Italy’s Interior Minister Roberto Maroni accused his neighbours of failing to show solidarity with Rome, questioning whether “in this situation it makes sense to remain in the European Union,” and saying that it was “better to be alone than in bad company".
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi made his thoughts clear on the issue during a visit to the southern island of Lampedusa, where most of the migrants wash up, last weekend. “This is not a problem for a single country but for the whole of Europe,” he told reporters, adding that his EU counterparts “will not be able to shirk (responsibility)”.
In a direct gripe at France, the embattled prime minister said Paris "must realise" that 80% of Tunisian migrants are hoping to join relatives or friends that are not in Italy, but in France.
Solution vs squabble
European Council President Herman Van Rompuy largely ignored the catfight, speaking instead about what the EU could do to assist southern countries in tackling the influx of migrants.
Jose Manuel Barroso, the head of the EU Commission, brought some relief with the announcement Tuesday that the EU would give Tunisia 140 million euros ($200 million) to help it readmit nationals deported from Europe.
"It is essential that we can work together so this can be resolved,” he told reporters in Tunis. “What we don't want are problems between Tunisia and Europe."
Back in Europe, meanwhile, internal problems look far from abating. In the latest of cross-border exchanges, a senior member of the ruling CDU party in Germany, deputy parliamentary group leader Guenter Krings, told daily paper Bild that Italy was using “blackmail methods ... that we normally associate with the mafia”. The response from Rome is awaited with baited breath…