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Italy threatens to pull EU funding over migrant boat crisis

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Rome (AFP)

Italy's deputy prime minister has threatened to pull the country's EU funding if Friday's European Commission migration meeting doesn't come to the aid of 150 people stranded aboard an Italian coastguard ship.

The migrants have been blocked at the Sicilian port of Catania on the Diciotti vessel since Monday night as the Italian government refuses to allow them to disembark without commitments from the EU to take a portion of them in.

On Thursday, Commission spokesman Alexander Winterstein told reporters that a meeting of high-level representatives from around a dozen member states would be held on Friday to discuss the issue.

"In recent months we have had the chance to see how a soft line with the European Union worked and how a hard line works," said Di Maio in an interview published on Facebook on Thursday evening.

"If tomorrow (Friday) nothing comes out of the European Commission meeting, if they decide nothing regarding the Diciotti and the redistribution of the migrants, I and the whole Five Star Movement will no longer be prepared to give 20 billion euros ($23.1 billion) to the European Union every year."

Most of the European budget comes directly from the member states. Each country funds the bloc as a proportion of its wealth and receives a part in return.

The EU's official figures for 2016 say that 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.

Friday's meeting comes following Italian interior minister and co-deputy PM Matteo Salvini's decision to leave the majority of the migrants on board.

"No one will land in Italy without my authorisation," Salvini said in a radio interview on Thursday.

Salvini's only concession has been to allow the 27 unaccompanied minors from the group, saved at sea by the Diciotti on August 15, off the boat on Wednesday.

Migration is an important issue in Italy, where hundreds of thousands of people have arrived since 2013.

Opinion polls suggest that Salvini's stance has boosted the League's approval rating to around 30 percent -- over 10 points up from its showing in March's general election -- and is now level with the populist Five Star Movement, led by Di Maio and 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 19,526 arriving up to August 23, as opposed to 98,076 in 2017.

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