Italy and France committed to 'full co-operation' on migrants after war of words

The 'Ocean Viking' rescue ship docked in southern France at the weekend after Italy repeatedly refused it safe harbour

People rescued from 'Ocean Viking' rescue ship get off a bus at the 'Giens Cap Levant' holiday camp in Hyeres, southern France, where the migrants were able to stay about 20 days. AFP
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Tensions between France and Italy over the treatment of migrants at sea have eased with the release of joint statements from their presidents on Monday, in which they “affirmed the great importance of relations” between the two countries.

The heads of state asserted the need for “full co-operation in all areas”, including the treatment and relocation of migrants within the European Union.

The offices of Presidents Sergio Mattarella and Emmanuel Macron issued identical statements Monday after the two leaders spoke by telephone following a weekend of diplomatic exchanges over how to deal with asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean.

However, a French Interior Ministry representative said Paris would still not take in the 3,000 migrants it had previously pledged to relocate from Italy, in a sign that disagreement remains.

Relations between the EU members turned sour after Italy refused to let a rescue ship carrying 234 migrants disembark shores spending nearly two weeks at sea.

After a furious exchange of words last week in which French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin condemned Italy's “unacceptable behaviour”, passengers on board the Ocean Viking charity-run ship were instead allowed to dock at a military base in southern France.

Following a Cabinet meeting on Thursday, Mr Darmanin said France “deeply regrets that Italy was not willing to behave like a responsible European state,” and that it would consequently renege on a promise to take in other asylum seekers who had arrived in Italy.

The public quarrel saw France call Italy “selfish”, and its behaviour “unacceptable”, while Italian right-wing Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni called Paris’s reaction “incomprehensible and unjustified”.

The Ocean Viking, run by charity SOS Mediterannee, is one of four rescue vessels that in the last two weeks have rescued more than 1,000 people in Italian waters attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea in small boats.

After repeated requests to disembark were ignored by Italy, the German-flagged Rise Above and Humanity 1 and the Norwegian-flagged Geo Barents were finally allowed to dock at Italian ports.

Ms Meloni likened the rescue ships to “pirates” and demanded that other European countries take in the passengers and shoulder more of Italy's migrant burden.

After criticising Italy’s decision for being “selfish” with regard to the Ocean Viking, France suspended its participation in a European Union solidarity pact to accept 3,000 relocated migrants this year from Italy and sent officers to reinforce its southern border crossings and prevent migrants from entering.

France announced it was sending 500 extra officers to beef up its frontiers with Italy with lines forming on Sunday at the Ventimiglia-Menton crossing at Italy’s northern border crossings with France.

Asylum-seekers who try to cross into France after arriving in Italy were seen sleeping on mattresses under a highway overpass and police patrolled trains and roads across the border, stopping migrants.

Despite the warmer words between on Monday, France has not said it will backtrack on its refusal to take in asylum seekers from Italy.

France’s junior minister for European affairs, Laurence Boone, said that 11 countries in Europe are helping France by taking in passengers who were on the Ocean Viking.

Updated: November 14, 2022, 4:08 PM