In the past five years Italy has taken in more than 640,000 mainly African migrants and says its EU partners must ease the burden.
But its stance over the Aquarius has been bitterly attacked by MEPs and also led to a spat with France after President Emmanuel Macron accused the Italian government of “cynicism and irresponsibility” for refusing to let a stranded rescue ship packed with migrants dock in Italy.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte hit back angrily at France, calling its stance on migrants “hypocritical”. He criticised “countries that have always preferred to turn their backs when it comes to immigration.”
The Aquarius, a boat of the SOS Méditerranée rescue organisation, has been wandering through the Mediterranean after being denied access to both Italian and Maltese ports. Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini has written on Facebook that he wants to block ports to people saved from drowning, to allow Italy to “raise its head again.”
The plight of the refugees, now supposedly on their way to Spain, and the prospects for the reform of the Dublin Regulation was debated by members in Strasbourg on Wednesday.
Opening the debate, Parliament President Antonio Tajani said, “This emergency requires an adequate response from EU - this problem cannot be resolved by the member states alone, we know this from arguments and disagreements between governments.
“If we look at what’s going to happen in coming years we have to decide quickly what to do. If we don’t take a stand on climate change, terrorism, poverty, in order to promote peace, we will see migratory flows of biblical proportions - not thousands but millions moving from Africa.
“Yet we continue to waste time and the member states continue to kick the ball amongst themselves. The next Council has to take a decision on this.”
Addressing the plenary, European migration, home affairs and citizenship Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said, “The events of the last days concerning the Aquarius boat remind us of the gravity of the migratory challenge in the central Mediterranean and of its humanitarian implications.
“We cannot turn our eyes off what is happening, even after three years of progress in managing flows. We cannot afford to become complacent.
“What matters most is that people in a desperate situation were saved and helped. That is what counts ultimately, and always. I want to be clear that I will not enter into any blame-game today.
Everybody needs to take their responsibilities and play their role in solidarity.
“In the case of the Aquarius boat, I welcome that a solution was found. I commend the generosity of the Spanish government. I would also like to commend Italy and many other member states that are upholding our values and taking up their share of European responsibility for many years now.
“We should not lose sight of the efforts these member states have done in the past and continue to do so. Indeed, while the Aquarius will disembark in Spain, more than 900 people were disembarked this morning in Catania. Italy continues to take up its responsibility.
“Our central objective is - and I think we all agree on this - to avoid in the first place that people fleeing from poverty, persecution or violence put their lives at risks embarking in perilous journeys. It puts people’s lives at risk. It creates tensions within our societies as shown by the strong reactions in the social media.
“To this end, our action is much more effective if it starts before they embark on these journeys - on the other side of the Mediterranean.”
EPP group deputy Roberta Metsola, Parliament’s co-rapporteur on the situation in the Mediterranean and the need for a holistic EU approach to migration, said, “It’s difficult not to be angry, when we find ourselves facing a situation that we warned would come. It’s difficult not to be angry, when we can introduce laws on plastics and litter, we can end roaming, reform agriculture, but when it comes to migration, Prime Ministers are stuck.
“Our message to Council is clear: leave no space for more raised fists and banging on tables, no more victorious hashtags. No more children born on the high seas. No more lives used to prop up the wannabe strongmen of Europe. Things must change.
“In the immediate term: We must reform our Dublin system to one that balances responsibility with solidarity; We need to ensure that our borders are secure and our coastguards have all the resources they need. We must break traffickers’ models.”
“We must draw distinctions between those in need of protection and those seeking work. Those who need protection must be given it but equally those who do not must be returned.
“Look seriously into setting up EU-run disembarkation locations in safe third countries, with EU standards, where anyone saved can be disembarked, vetted, processed in full recognition of their rights and either returned or resettled.”
“In the long term we must move from aid to investment in Africa that creates jobs and hope.”
Italian GUE/NGL group member Barbara Spinelli attacked the “hypocrisy” of President Macron’s criticisms of the Italian government’s decision while also accepting that Italy also has a duty of care.
She said, “Macron accuses Rome of cynicism but, at the same time, he has cynically and selfishly closed the French borders with Italy.
“In any case, we should not exonerate Rome from its responsibilities. But first and foremost, we should take into account the negotiating deadlock regarding the Dublin regulation: the sleep of solidarity produces monsters almost everywhere in the Union.”
Spinelli added, “For this reason, I support the proposal made by Guy Verhofstadt to bring, as Parliament, an action before the Court of Justice against the Council for failure to act.”
Further comment came from Greens/EFA group co-leader Philippe Lamberts, who, referring to the “Aquarius debacle”, noted, “We urgently need a new approach to this humanitarian crisis.
Monday’s undignified showdown over the Aquarius was a horrible reminder that the EU still lacks a coherent strategy for responding to the suffering on Europe’s borders.
“If this crisis shows no signs of abating it’s not for a lack of solutions, but a lack of political will. The European Parliament has already put forward strong proposals that would do a great deal to alleviate the suffering of refugees and ease pressure on countries like Italy and Greece.
“Eventually, European governments will have to agree on how to reform our asylum system, which is clearly not fit for purpose. As long as the drag their heels, there will only be further suffering.”