The presidents of Italy and France sought to ease tensions over migration by asserting the need for “full co-operation” and the importance of strong bilateral relations after days of diplomatic barbs over the fate of migrants crossing the Mediterranean.
The offices of presidents Sergio Mattarella and Emmanuel Macron issued identical statements on Monday after the two leaders spoke by telephone.
In a sign of co-operation, the heads of state “affirmed the great importance of relations between France and Italy and stressed the need to bring together the conditions for full co-operation in all areas, both bilaterally and within the European Union”.
While both leaders are heads of state, Mr Mattarella wields no real power in the day-to-day governing of Italy, which is handled by premier Giorgia Meloni.
France has a prime minister who is head of government but is named by Mr Macron, who holds the real power in government.
The diplomatic row erupted last week when Italy forced France’s hand to accept a humanitarian rescue ship, the Ocean Viking with 234 migrants aboard, after Italy had refused it a port for weeks.
France retaliated by suspending its participation in a European Union solidarity pact to accept 3,000 relocated migrants this year from Italy and sent officers to reinforce its southern border crossings and prevent migrants from entering.
Italy’s new far-right-led government headed by Ms Meloni has vowed that Italy will no longer be the primary port of entry for migrants leaving on smugglers’ boats from Libya and is demanding Europe do more to shoulder the burden and regulate the aid groups that operate rescue ships in the Mediterranean.
France’s junior minister for European affairs, Laurence Boone, said the issue would be raised at Monday’s meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, even though it was not formally on the agenda.
“I would recall the importance of European unity, of responsibility when it comes to human life, and European solidarity. By the way, I want to take this opportunity to say thank you to the 11 countries that are helping France by taking refugees that arrived, as you know, at the end of last week,” she told reporters as she arrived at the meeting.
Italy’s foreign minister, Antonio Tajani, has accused France of overreacting to a statement issued by Ms Meloni thanking Paris for taking in the Ocean Viking, a statement that was issued before France had publicly announced it would.
“They took it as a provocation, using exaggerated tones,” Mr Tajani told state-run RAI. “She was talking about a boat that was heading toward French waters, we never said ‘it has to go to France’.”
Ms Meloni has essentially accused the media of being behind the confusion, saying she only issued the statement after the Élysée did not deny Italian media reports that Paris had agreed to take the ship in.
She said she decided to issue the statement after some eight hours after the first reports circulated as a gesture of gratitude for France’s solidarity. – AP