The Italian foreign ministry summoned France's ambassador on Wednesday amid a growing row over a migrant rescue boat blocked from unloading stranded asylum seekers.
On Tuesday, Emmanuel Macron, the French president, strongly criticised the Italian government’s "cynicism and irresponsibility" for deciding to close its ports amid a hardening stance towards migrants from the new populist government.
“After the declarations released yesterday in Paris on the matter of the Aquarius, Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi has summoned the French ambassador in Italy this morning to the foreign ministry,” the Italian foreign ministry responded on Wednesday morning.
The rescue ship, the Aquarius, is operated by a French NGO and was carrying 629 migrants, including 123 unaccompanied minors and seven pregnant women picked up after setting sail from Libya, when it was prevented from docking in Italy on Sunday.
Gabriel Attal, a spokeperson for Macron’s En Marche party, called the Aquarius episode “nauseating.” After Malta and Italy's rejection of the ship, Spain announced it would allow it to dock in Valencia. Most of the rescued migrants were transferred to Italian Navy and an Italian Coast guard vessels, which set sail with the Aquarius toward Spain on Tuesday.
Percentage of people comfortable with having social relations with immigrants Libya Spain Italy migrants
But as a solution at sea was being negotiated, the war of words between Paris and Rome continued, with Italy’s prime minister Giuseppe Conte threatening to cancel a summit planned for Friday with Mr Macron, saying: “Italy cannot accept hypocritical lessons from countries that in the field of migration have always preferred to turn their head the other way."
France did not offer the boat a safe port as it insisted it was Italy's responsibility under the Dublin Regulation that stipulates migrants should claim asylum in the country to which they first arrive.
Q&A | Dublin Regulation
While diplomats work to resolve the row, the migrant crisis continues to pressure Italy, which carries out most of the search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.
An Italian Coast Guard ship carrying more than 900 migrants docked on Wednesday morning in Catania, Sicily, further intensifying the pressure on Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who has made cracking down on migration and “closing the ports” a top government priority. Catania was obliged to accept migrants rescued by the Italian Coast Guard, as opposed to an NGO-operated ship.
The two partners in Italy’s populist government, Mr Salvini, of the anti-immigration, hard-Right League party, and Luigi Di Maio of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, both lashed out on social media on Tuesday.
"Spain wants to report us, France says I'm 'nauseating'. "I want to work serenely with all, but with one principle: #Italiansfirst," Mr Salvini said on Twitter.
A French foreign ministry spokeswoman said on Wednesday that France is "perfectly aware" of the pressure on Italy as it copes with an influx of migrants from Africa, and it is "committed to cooperation and dialogue" on the issue.
In an interview published on Wednesday in the Milan daily newspaper Corriere della Sera, Mr Salvini also said he had spoken with German interior minister Horst Seehofer, and believed an Italy-Germany consensus was close on migration and security policy. Mr Salvini said he plans to visit his conservative German counterpart in Berlin soon to hammer out new proposals on the boat row and the broader issue of migrant quotas.
He criticised France for pushing back 10,000 people from its border with Italy and said “we are all paying for instability the French brought to Libya and south of Libya”.
Sebastian Kurz, the Conservative Austrian chancellor, said on Wednesday that interior ministers of Austria, Germany and Italy have formed an "axis of the willing" to combat illegal immigration into the EU,
"I am happy about the good cooperation that we want to develop between Rome, Vienna and Berlin - I think it marks very sensible cooperation that will contribute to reducing illegal migration to Europe," Mr Kurz, whose country assumes the EU's rotating presidency on July 1, said after talks with Mr Seehofer in Berlin. Mr Seehofer is involved in his own power struggle with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, over his proposals to close the border to migrants.