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EU slams Italy for holding it to financial ransom over migrants

Luke James
Brussels correspondent
People rescued by the Italian coastguard waiting for a diplomatic stand-off to be resolved so they can disembark (Getty)

The EU has hit back at the Italian government’s unprecedented attempt to hold it to ransom in the latest stand-off over who should take responsibility for migrants rescued at sea.

The European Commission told Rome that “threats” won’t help resolve a situation which has seen 150 migrants waiting to disembark an Italian coastguard vessel, the Diciotti, for three days.

It comes after Italy’s deputy prime minister, Luigi Di Maio of the 5-Star Movement, vowed yesterday to withhold the country’s contributions to the EU’s budget unless other member states agreed to take the migrants after a meeting being held in Brussels today.

“If tomorrow nothing comes out of a European Commission meeting on redistributing migrants from the Diciotti ship, the 5-Star and I will not be willing to give €20bn each year to the EU,” he said in a video message posted on Facebook.

Italy was a net contributor to the EU budget last year. But Commission figures show the country paid in €12bn – far less than Di Maio claimed – and received €9.7bn back.

MORE: EU hits back at claims it is to blame for Italy bridge tragedy

No country has ever withheld one of its monthly payments to the EU budget.

The commission issued a combative response at its daily press conference, saying it would not respond well to threats.

Its deputy chief spokesperson, Alexander Winterstein, said: “Finding a solution for the persons on board is our main priority, that is what we are focused on – and that is what we think everybody else should be focused on.

“Let’s not engage in finger pointing. We also believe that unconstructive comments, let alone threats, are not helpful and they will not get us any closer to a solution.

“The European Union is a community of rules and it operates on the basis of rules – not threats. So, we would call on all parties involved to work constructively together to find a swift solution for the persons on board in the spirit of good cooperation.”

Luigi Di Maio, Italy’s deputy prime minister, has threatened to withhold payments to the EU budget (Getty)

The Diciotti docked in Catania three days ago after rescuing 177 people in the Mediterranean. The Italian government allowed the 27 children to leave the boat but have forced the 150 adults to remain on board.

The International Organisation for Migration has called for their release, saying migrants arriving from Libya are” often the victims of violence, abuse and torture.”

A Doctors without Borders psychologist who spoke to the children reported that they had spent more than a year in detention, where they were abused and mistreated.

The commission says it has been coordinating “intense contacts” between member states to find a solution.

A similar situation was resolved earlier this month when six other EU countries offered to take-in 141 migrants who had been rescued in the Mediterranean by the Aquarius rescue ship.

MORE: Stand-off over Aquarius rescue ship ends as six countries offer help

Italy had pointed the finger at the UK on that occasion, saying the government should take responsibility for the people on board because the Aquarius was flying under a Gibraltar flag.

A meeting of representatives from 12 member states is taking place in Brussels today in a bid to agree on a permanent process for people rescued at sea, but the commission stressed it was not designed to resolve the latest stand-off.

In June, the European Council proposed “control centres” should be set-up across the EU where migrants would be taken upon arrival.

Once there, they would assess who were refugees with a right to claim asylum and who were “economic migrants” with no right to remain.

No EU country has yet come forward to say they will house such a centre on their territory. EU leaders also agreed to investigate the possibility of having processing centres in north Africa.