Italy doubles down on anti-migrant stance ahead of EU summit

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has become the public face of Italy's new unbending line on migrants

Rome (AFP) – Italy doubled down Friday on its new tough stance against migrants, calling for a German NGO’s rescue boat to be impounded and its crew arrested as the EU prepares for a tense weekend mini-summit on the issue dividing the bloc.

Just three weeks in power, Italy’s new populist government is digging its heels in on campaign promises to stop the influx of migrants, threatening to seize rescue ships or barring them from its ports. 

This time, it has set its sights on the German NGO, Mission Lifeline. 

“The illegal boat Lifeline is now in Maltese waters with its cargo of 239 migrants. For the safety of its crew and the passengers, we’ve asked Malta to open its ports,” Interior Minister Matteo Salvini wrote on Twitter.

“Clearly, the boat should immediately be impounded and its crew arrested,” said Salvini, who is also Italy’s deputy prime minister. 

A source close to the Maltese government said that Valetta had not yet received any official request from Rome, nor had Lifeline itself sought any permission to land. 

Salvini has repeatedly accused NGOs of being complicit with human smugglers operating in Libya.

– ‘Open the Maltese and French ports!’ –

“Italian ports are no longer at the disposal of traffickers. Open the Maltese ports! Open the French ports,” he said on Friday, speaking ahead a second round of local elections on Sunday in Sienna.

On Thursday, Italy’s infrastructure minister Danilo Toninelli had said that two of Mission Lifeline’s ships — the Lifeline and the Seefuchs — would be “seized by the Italian government and directed into our ports” to launch an investigation into their legal status. 

It would not be the first time that Italy has seized an NGO ship. 

In March, a boat operated by the Spanish aid group Open Arms was impounded after NGO workers refused to hand over migrants saved during a rescue mission off the Libyan coast to the Libyan coastguard, instead delivering them to the Italian island of Sicily. 

Last year, the Iuventa, chartered by German NGO Jugend Rettet was similarly seized.

The far-right Salvini, who heads the anti-immigration League party, has quickly become the public face of Rome’s new confrontational and unbending stance.

– ‘Never touch Italian soil again’ –

It was he who barred the French NGO-run Aquarius rescue ship, carrying some 630 migrants, from docking in Italy, triggering an EU-wide row.

In a Faceook post on Thursday, he said: “Foreign NGO boats will never touch Italian soil again.” 

On Friday, he insisted that “Italy is no longer a country that can put up for sale, or occupied, a little bit by the French, a little bit by the Germans.” 

Just two days ahead of the Sunday Brussels meeting where the migration issue will take centre stage, Salvini vowed to make Brussels “face the music”. 

“Never was Italy so central to the discussions,” he said, noting that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had spoken personally via telephone to her Italian counterpart Giuseppe Conte on Thursday. 

Rome had briefly weighed boycotting the talks, but finally agreed to attend after being placated by Merkel. 

“If we’re only going there to be given a pre-prepared lesson from the French and the Germans, we’d be better off saving the money for the trip,” Salvini had said on Thursday. 

Nevertheless, Merkel had “clarified matters” by suggesting that the apparent leak of Sunday’s final communique on Wednesday, had been a “misunderstanding”. 

Rome was angry that the text  focused more on the redistribution of the migrants once they had arrived in Europe, rather than on securing Europe’s borders.

Sunday’s meeting is supposed to prepare for next week’s full EU leaders summit when migration is top of the agenda.

– ‘Leprosy’ –

Tempers nevertheless flared up again on Friday when French President Emmanuel Macron likened rising nationalism and anti-migrant sentiment in Europe to “leprosy”. 

“One day, he’s saying that he doesn’t want to offend Italy, and then the next, he’s talking about leprosy,” said Italy’s other deputy prime minister and head of the populist M5S party, Luigi Di Maio. 

“We may be leper populists. But I take the lessons from those who open their own ports. Welcome thousands of migrants and then we can talk,” said Salvini.