Italy summoned France’s envoy on Wednesday and angrily rejected French criticism of its immigration policies, escalating a diplomatic standoff that is widening one of Europe’s main political fault lines.
A day after French President Emmanuel Macron said Rome had acted with “cynicism and irresponsibility” by closing its ports to a migrant ship, Italy’s economy minister canceled a Paris meeting with his counterpart, and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte weighed postponing a meeting with Macron scheduled for Friday.
“We have nothing to learn about generosity, voluntarism, welcoming, and solidarity from anyone,” far-right Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini told the Senate.
Salvini, who is also deputy premier and the leader of the anti-immigrant League party, called on France to apologize and said he was not prepared to take criticism from a country which regularly stopped migrants on their shared border.
France said it has received no formal request from Italy for an apology, and that it believed the planned meeting between Macron and Conte would go ahead.
Visiting western France, Macron initially did not respond to questions on the issue, but later told reporters: “We must never give in to emotions, which some people manipulate.”
Macron suggested Rome was trying to make a high-profile break with previous governments in refusing to accept the ship instead of tackling the underlying problems of development and security in migrants’ home countries and smuggling rings.
The row centers on the charity ship Aquarius, which both Italy and Malta refused to let dock at their ports. It was carrying 629 migrants and is now heading to Spain, which offered safe harbor, escorted by two Italian ships
SOS Mediterranee and Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), co-operating the Aquarius, are both well-known French charities.
France was not alone in its criticism.
The U.N. refugee agency’s chief, Italian national Filippo Grandi, told Reuters it was “shameful” that two European countries refused to take in vulnerable migrants.
How Europe should share the responsibility of handling migrants trying to get into the bloc from war zones and poor countries, largely across Africa and the Middle East, remains a vexed question.
Many states have fallen short of their pledge, made in 2015, to take some asylum seekers from Italy and Greece - the first port of call for most migrants given their long Mediterranean coastlines - and share the cost of their care.
Salvini’s League scored its best result in the March national election, partly on pledges to deport hundreds of thousands of migrants and halt the flow of newcomers, and has formed a coalition with the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement.
More than 1.8 million migrants have entered Europe since 2014, and Italy is now sheltering more than 170,000 asylum seekers, as well as an estimated 500,000 unregistered migrants.