Italy PM confirms Macron meeting amid migrant boat row
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A meeting between Italy’s prime minister and the French president will go ahead as planned on Friday despite an ugly spat between the two countries over Rome’s refusal to take in a migrant rescue ship.
The meeting had been thrown into doubt as the two countries traded barbs over the treatment of more than 600 migrants rescued off the Libyan coast at the weekend.
The migrants were stranded on the NGO vessel Aquarius until Spain said the ship could land at its port of Valencia. It is expected to arrive there late on Saturday.
Conte's office said the planned talks would go ahead following a conciliatory phone call between the two politicians.
"President Macron underscored that he did not say anything that was meant to offend Italy or the Italian people," said a statement from the Italian prime minister.
"Macron and Conte agreed that with the end-June European Union summit looming, it is necessary that new initiatives are discussed together," the statement added.
Earlier this week, Macron accused Italy's new populist government of "cynicism and irresponsibility" for closing its ports to the 629 migrants, comments Rome blasted as “unacceptable”.
The row escalated on Wednesday when Italy's foreign ministry summonned the French ambassador and the country's economy minister postponed a meeting with his French counterpart.
Matteo Salvini, the powerful interior minister and deputy PM, said Conte’s meeting with Macron should be cancelled if France did not issue an "official apology".
His words were echoed by Luigi di Maio, another deputy PM, who said on Thursday morning that Rome was still waiting for an apology.
From ‘words to action’
Italy has repeatedly accused fellow EU members of abandoning it as it struggles to cope with migrants making the perilous journey from Africa across the Mediterranean.
The country has seen more than 700,000 migrants arrive on its shores since 2013.
Speaking to the Senate on Wednesday, Salvini said France had received only 640 of the 9,816 migrants it promised to take from Italy under a 2015 EU deal that was never implemented.
He demanded that France move from "words to action and offer a sign of generosity" by taking more in.
Salvini, who heads the hard-right League party, has accused charities that rescue migrants of working with human traffickers but said Italy would not stop rescuing migrant boats itself.
An Italian coastguard ship carrying more than 900 migrants was allowed to dock in Sicily on Wednesday.
In Geneva, the head of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), Filippo Grandi, also Italian, said Wednesday Italy was "right" to say it could not accept all the migrants crossing the Mediterranean.
"Closing ports, whoever does it, threatens rescue at sea, as we have seen in the case of the Aquarius, and therefore is not the right solution," Grandi told reporters in Geneva, though stressing that Rome’s reasons for closing its ports “have to be listened to”.
‘Axis of the willing’
European Union member states are deeply divided over how to deal with asylum seekers.
Italy and Greece, in particular, are angry at rules stating that migrants must apply for asylum in the European nation where they first arrive.
Antonio Tajani, the European Parliament's president, on Wednesday said the contentious issue was threatening "the survival" of the bloc, calling it "the biggest challenge of our times".
EU leaders in December set an end-June deadline for an overhaul of rules to create a permanent mechanism to deal with migrants.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the issue was "something of a litmus test for the future and the cohesion of Europe".
But as the 28-nation bloc struggles to reach a common stance, some countries have vowed to take matters into their own hands.
On Wednesday, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz hailed cooperation between the hardline interior ministers of Germany, Italy and his own country on the issue.
"I think it marks very sensible cooperation that will contribute to reducing illegal migration to Europe," said Kurz, whose country assumes the EU's rotating presidency on July 1.
"We believe an axis of the willing is needed to fight illegal migration," he added.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)