Immigration policy has caused an escalating row between France and Italy, the latest in a series of diplomatic clashes between European Union (EU) member states in recent years.
Tensions began to rise after Italy refused to allow humanitarian rescue boats loaded with would-be asylum seekers to dock in Italian ports. France initially agreed to take in some 3,000 of the refugees but retracted its offer after Italy said it would not negotiate its position. France also said it would step up border security between the two countries.
The issue became front-page news after a six-month-old baby who froze to death was among six people to perish on a ship awaiting permission to land in Europe last week.
Other disagreements have arisen between member states in the 27-nation EU bloc over issues including energy strategies amid the cutoff of natural gas flows by Russia, sanctions against Russia and support for Ukraine. Previously, countries had locked horns over travel policies during the COVID-19 pandemic, and before that over the status of refugees in 2018.
“What we are seeing are old problems resurfacing,” Marco Borraccetti, a professor of European Union law at the University of Bologna, told reporters. “These kinds of frictions go back to the adoption of the euro currency and the rights of workers to move to other countries.”
According to Matthieu Tardis, a research fellow with the Center for Migration and Citizenship at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), the latest clash over migrant policy stems from differences between national policies and international maritime law.
“Maritime law says that people rescued at sea must be brought to the nearest safe harbour,” Tardis said. “This is why we see so many rescue ships docking in Italian ports because it is so close to Libya and other parts of Africa.”
Italy has changed its policy on refugees in recent weeks, following the election of far-right prime minister Giorgia Meloni. The League, a member party of the Meloni government, opposes allowing easy access to Italy for refugees.
The disagreement on migrant policy sparked tensions between Meloni and French President Emmanuel Macron. However, these were soothed after a telephone conversation between Macron and Italian President Sergio Mattarella on Monday. The two leaders “stressed the great importance of the relations between the two countries”, including the need for full collaboration in every sector within the European Union, according to a statement from Mattarella’s office. However, France did not revive its offer of accepting the 3,000 migrants currently in Italy.
Borraccetti said the divisions between EU member states over multiple issues were part of the growing pains of an increasingly integrated bloc.
“Every crisis can become an opportunity,” he said. “But it takes a long-term vision and each country must recognize that it has certain obligations.”
Integration is a process, not a stopping point, he added.