French President Emmanuel Macron called for greater European solidarity over migration Friday following talks with the new Italian Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte after the leaders met for the first time since a spat emerged between the two countries.
Mr Conte urged for a “radical” overhaul of asylum rules and greater engagement with migrant departure and transit countries. Both backed proposals to process asylum applications at “European centres” in the country of origin. The Italian Premier was particular keen to push the case for tearing up the current EU asylum regulations known as the Dublin Regulation.
Under the agreement those applying for asylum must do so in the first country they enter, a system that has put increasing pressure on Italy and helped fuel the rise of its new populist government.
Mr Conte threatened to cancel the Paris talks after Mr Macron described as Italy “cynical and irresponsible” for not accepting an NGO ship carrying 629 migrants. The boat ‘Aquarius’ was denied entry to Italy as part of a new hardline approach by Conte’s government that seeks to clampdown on migrant arrivals. The ship is now headed to the Spanish port of Valencia accompanied by two Italian ships but has been forced to alter its route due to bad weather. Doctors on board have warned that the mostly sub-Saharan migrants, who include women and children, are becoming increasingly unwell.
While the lead up to the Paris meeting was turbulent, the two men afterwards appeared keen to find common ground, focused on overhauling the system. Mr Macron spoke of European-built resettlement centres outside the bloc as well as internal reforms.
“We must change strategy and set up a system coherent with European Union values, reinforcing protection of human lives,” Mr Conte said. “We must prevent the journeys of death. We must create European protection centres in countries also to speed up the process of identification and request for asylum.”
Mr Macron also emphasised the need to strengthen the EU’s external border force Frontex, saying asylum decisions could not be taken “when boats are a few kilometres from the coast.” Nonetheless he seemed keen to underline that France had suffered from the migrant crisis and still had many inside their borders.
The Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini further fuelled the controversy over his hardline stance when on Friday he was reported to have commented that the Aquarius, also denied entry to Malta, was taking a “cruise” to Spain. The diplomatic furore grew enough that Pope Francis waded in and called for a “shared global management of international migration in the values of justice, solidarity and compassion. Such international cooperation is important at every stage of migration.”
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez called for "a new Europe where national egoism does not prevail".
Italy has made it clear that it is turning away NGO ships carrying migrants rather than its own coastguard. After turning the Aquarius away, it allowed one of its ships carrying over 900 migrants land on Sicily on Wednesday.