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Italy Threatens EU Funding in Migrant Standoff

FILE - Migrants wait to disembark from the Italian coast guard vessel "Diciotti" at the port of Catania, Italy, Aug. 22, 2018.

Italy’s populist government warned it would pull European Union funding unless it agrees to take some of the 150 people stranded on an Italian coast guard ship Friday, sparking a fresh immigration row with the bloc.

Dozens of people have been blocked at the Sicilian port of Catania on the Diciotti vessel since Monday night because the Italian government is refusing to allow them to disembark without commitments from the EU to take some of them in.

But a high-level meeting of a dozen EU member states in Brussels on Friday, held to discuss what officials said was the broader issue of the disembarkation of migrants rescued at sea, failed to produce an immediate solution for the Diciotti migrants.

Italian Minister of Labor and Industry Luigi Di Maio speaks at the Italian Business Association Confcommercio meeting in Rome, Italy, June 7, 2018.
Italian Minister of Labor and Industry Luigi Di Maio speaks at the Italian Business Association Confcommercio meeting in Rome, Italy, June 7, 2018.

​“The European Union has decided to turn its back on Italy once again,” Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio wrote on his Facebook page, adding that his country had no choice but to “take a compensatory measure in a unilateral way ... we are ready to reduce the funds that we give to the European Union.”

“They want the 20 billion euros ($23 billion) paid by Italian citizens? Then let them demonstrate that they deserve it and that they are taking charge of a problem that we can no longer face alone. The borders of Italy are the borders of Europe,” he added.

Di Maio had earlier warned that “if they decide nothing regarding the Diciotti and the redistribution of the migrants, I and the whole Five Star Movement (his party) will no longer be prepared to give 20 billion euros to the European Union every year.”

EU hits back

Migration is a hot-button issue in Italy, where hundreds of thousands of people have arrived since 2013 fleeing war, persecution and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Under EU rules people must seek asylum in their country of arrival, but Italy’s new government has increasingly barred boats from docking at its ports.

Italy refuses to let about 150 migrants off a coast guard ship unless they go straight to other European nations

Brussels quickly hit back at Di Maio’s comments.

“Unconstructive comments, let alone threats, are not helpful and they will not get us any closer to a solution,” European Commission spokesman Alexander Winterstein told a briefing.

“The EU is a community of rules and it operates on the basis of rules, not threats,” he added.

No deal was struck about the Diciotti migrants at the talks, as a source at the European Commission said “this was not a meeting where decisions were taken.”

Italy, EU contributions

However the source said they discussed “the need for a shared and rapid solution for the migrants on board of the Diciotti as well as those most recently disembarked in Spain and Malta.”

EU figures for 2016 say Italy contributed just less than 14 billion euros to the EU budget — less than 1 percent of its gross national income — while the bloc spent 11.6 billion euros in Italy.

Di Maio, who heads the anti-establishment Five Star, said Italy didn’t want the “mickey taken out of us by the union’s other countries” on the distribution of migrants.

“The EU was born of principles like solidarity. If it is not capable of redistributing 170 people it has serious problems with its founding principles,” he said in an interview with state broadcaster RAI.

Italian media reports that some of the migrants had started a hunger strike over their treatment. The coast guard told AFP they had “refused to eat breakfast” Friday.

FILE - Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini looks on during a news conference in Rome, June 20, 2018.
FILE - Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini looks on during a news conference in Rome, June 20, 2018.

Prosecutors from Sicily were traveling to Rome to question officials, including Italy’s hard-line Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, about the illegal detention of those onboard.

“If a judge wants to arrest me, I expect it, no problem,” Salvini said Friday.

‘We’ve had enough’

Salvini stopped the majority of the migrants disembarking from the ship after they were rescued August 15.

His only concession was to allow 27 unaccompanied minors off the boat Wednesday.

Salvini said in an interview with Corriere Della Sera that the only way the migrants would be let off the Diciotti was “with a nice big airplane from one Europe’s capitals landing in Catania.”

He also echoed Di Maio’s comments about EU funding Friday, telling Italian radio: “If in Europe they pretend not to understand, given that we pay a lot, we will do what it takes to pay a little less.”

Opinion polls suggest that Salvini’s stance has boosted his far-right League party’s approval rating to around 30 percent, a more than 10 point jump from its showing in March’s election, and is now level with the Five Star Movement with which it has governed Italy since early June.

However, according to Salvini’s own ministry, migrant arrivals are more than 80 percent down on the same period last year, with just more than 19,500 arriving up to August 23, compared with 98,000 in 2017.

In France, meanwhile, the presidency called for a “coordinated, long-term European mechanism” to distribute migrants that would include Italy. “There are forces in Italy that are looking to co-operate, we want to believe Italy wishes to play the game,” the Elysee palace said.