Italy threatens EU funding in migrant row

Rome (AFP) –


Italy's populist government warned it would pull the plug on European Union funding unless it agrees to take some of the 150 people stranded on an Italian coastguard ship Friday, sparking a fresh immigration row with the bloc.

The caustic exchange coincides with a high-level meeting of a dozen EU member states in Brussels on Friday, to discuss what officials said was the broader issue of the disembarkation of migrants rescued at sea.

Dozens of people have been blocked at the Sicilian port of Catania on the Diciotti vessel since Monday night because the Italian government is refusing to allow them to disembark without commitments from the EU to take some of them in.

Continuing the Italian government's hard line with the EU, Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio suggested Rome could try to leverage its contributions in the bitter struggle over migration.

"If they decide nothing regarding the Diciotti and the redistribution of the migrants, I and the whole Five Star Movement (his party) will no longer be prepared to give 20 billion euros ($23 billion) to the European Union every year."

Migration is a hot-button issue in Italy, where hundreds of thousands of people have arrived since 2013 fleeing war, persecution and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Under EU rules people must seek asylum in their country of arrival, but Italy's new government has increasingly barred boats from docking at its ports.

- 'Unconstructive comments' -

Brussels hit back at Di Maio's comments ahead of the migration meeting.

"Unconstructive comments, let alone threats, are not helpful and they will not get us any closer to a solution," European Commission spokesman Alexander Winterstein told a briefing.

"The EU is a community of rules and it operates on the basis of rules, not threats."

EU figures for 2016 say Italy contributed just under 14 billion euros to the EU budget -- less than one percent of its gross national income -- while the bloc spent 11.6 billion euros in Italy.

Di Maio, who heads the anti-establishment Five Star, said Italy didn't want the "mickey taken out of us by the union's other countries" on the distribution of migrants.

"The EU was born of principles like solidarity. If it is not capable of redistributing 170 people it has serious problems with its founding principles," he said in an interview with state broadcaster RAI.

Italian media reports that some of the migrants had started a hunger strike over their treatment. The coastguard told AFP they had "refused to eat breakfast" on Friday.

- 'We've had enough' -

EU sources said they did not know whether the delegates would strike a deal on the Diciotti during their talks in Brussels.

Italy's hardline Interior Minister Matteo Salvini stopped the majority of the migrants disembarking from the ship after they were rescued on August 15.

His only concession was to allow 27 unaccompanied minors off the boat Wednesday.

Salvini said in an interview with Corriere Della Sera that the only way the migrants would be let off the Diciotti was "with a nice big airplane from one Europe's capitals landing in Catania".

"Europe needs to understand that the Italian government is irritated. We've had enough with their many words and few results," he said, claiming that the other nations had only taken in 12,000 of the 35,000 people they had promised.

Opinion polls suggest that Salvini's stance has boosted his far-right League party's approval rating to around 30 percent -- over 10 points up from its showing in the March election -- and is now level with the Five Star Movement with which it has governed Italy since the start of June.

However, according to Salvini's own ministry, migrant arrivals are more than 80 percent down on the same period last year, with just over 19,500 arriving up to August 23, compared to to 98,000 in 2017.