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Migrant row on the agenda as Macron hosts Italian leader

AFP | Giuseppe Conte's visit to Paris had been in doubt amid a bitter spat between Paris and Rome over a migrant boat that was turned away by Italy.

French President Emmanuel Macron will meet Italy's new premier Giuseppe Conte for a working lunch Friday, just days after sparks flew between the two leaders over Rome's rejection of a rescue ship carrying hundreds of migrants.


Watch the press conference live starting from 2:45pm Paris time (GMT+2) by clicking here.

Despite efforts by both sides to play down their testy exchanges, the clash underscores the deep divides in Europe on how to deal with another summer surge in migrant arrivals from across the Mediterranean.

"It's time for collective action," Macron said Thursday during a trip to Rochefort, in western France.

"Sometimes finding solutions involves legitimate tensions when people disagree, but they disappear when people are willing to work together," added the French president.

Yet there are few signs that European leaders are anywhere near being ready to formulate a common response to the hundreds of people arriving daily – mainly on the coasts of Italy and Greece.

The issue of how to share the migrant burden is expected to dominate an EU summit at the end of June, which is supposed to be the deadline for an overhaul of the bloc's "Dublin rules".

The rules say migrants hoping to apply for asylum must do so in the first country they enter, a policy that has placed a huge burden on countries like Italy and Greece.

The influx has encouraged the rise of far-right and populist parties – leading most recently to Conte's nomination as prime minister in Italy's new anti-establishment and Eurosceptic government.

This week Conte's powerful interior minister, the hard-right League leader Matteo Salvini, teamed up with his German and Austrian counterparts as part of an "axis of the willing" to combat illegal immigration.

Their announcement was seen by many analysts as an implicit snub of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's efforts to find an EU-wide response.

Other countries meanwhile, such as Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, have either refused outright or resisted taking in refugees under a contested EU quota system.

'Hypocritical lessons'

The spat between Macron and Conte this week erupted after Italy refused to allow the Aquarius, a rescue boat carrying 629 migrants picked up off the coast of Libya, to dock on its shores.

The majority of the migrants are from Africa, while several others come from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, according to Doctors Without Borders.

>> Read more: Mission Aquarius, 10 days rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean

Macron blasted Italy on Tuesday for its “cynical” and "irresponsible” decision to turn the boat away, prompting an angry response from Rome, which said it refused to take "hypocritical lessons".

Many critics agreed that Macron was hardly in a position to lecture, saying France has accepted far fewer migrants than other EU countries, and its border police routinely send back migrants trying to cross into the country from Italy.

His comments prompted Rome to summon the French ambassador and cancel a meeting between the two countries' economy ministers this week, and cast doubt on whether Conte's lunch in Paris would still take place.

Macron's office said Thursday that the two leaders had spoken by telephone, and that "none of his comments were intended to offend Italy and the Italian people".

It also said Macron had called for closer cooperation between Rome and Paris to try to check the migrant flows at their source – mainly in Africa.

Later the French foreign ministry said it was ready to welcome migrants aboard the Aquarius who "meet the criteria for asylum" after they arrive in Spain.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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