The EU leadership held a special meeting late last week in response to the proposal of Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio who said that his cabinet could suspend funding to the EU unless Brussels makes other member states take in migrants being held on a rescue vessel in Sicily. Three days after Italy’s Diciotti coastguard boat docked on the Italian island, 150 migrants remained onboard. Rome wanted other EU member states to accept them, having itself accepted thousands rescued at sea.
The European Commission said numerous times last week that it was looking for a consensus in the form of an agreement, just like in the previous cases in June and July for ships carrying rescued migrants that docked in both Italy and Malta. The EU executive said it wanted to find “a swift resolution so that the people on board can be safely disembarked as soon as possible”. A Commission spokesperson commented that the Executive was “stepping up pro-active work to find a long-term and durable, European, solution”.
Mr. Di Maio is the leader of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, which has formed a coalition with the far-right League, whose leader has had hardliner stance towards migrants since he assumed office in June. Over the weekend, migrants trapped on the ship in Sicily for almost a week, were allowed to disembark after a number of bishops had agreed to take them in. Most of the migrants originate from Eritrea. Italy has accepted more than 17,000 migrants since the beginning of this year.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi commented in a statement that Europe has recognized “a fundamental and legal obligation” to help “people fleeing war, violence and persecution” throughout its history. “The time has come to end the back-and-forth that has seen countries competing in a race to the bottom on who can take the least responsibility for people rescued at sea,” he said. “It is dangerous and immoral to put the lives of refugees and asylum-seekers at risk while states engage in a political tug-of-war on long-term solutions.”