After the Ocean Viking, a meeting in Brussels to overcome tensions between France and Italy

Tensions between France and Italy over the issue of migrants rescued in the Mediterranean are at the center of an extraordinary meeting this Friday in Brussels (Belgium). European interior ministers meet in the capital of the European Union (EU) concerned about the increase in arrivals via the Western Balkans route.

The numbers do not reach the level of the refugee crisis of 2015-2016. But the possibility of a new wave of Ukrainian arrivals this winter, millions of them without electricity and heating due to Russian strikes, is also fueling European concerns.

The meeting was convened at the request of Paris, following the recent crisis with Rome over the Ocean Viking humanitarian vessel and its 234 migrants. The boat finally landed in France on Nov. 11 on an “exceptional” basis after Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Italian government refused to take it in.

Better coordination with countries of origin and transit

These tensions have rekindled the very delicate debate on solidarity between EU countries on the subject of migration, while a reform presented two years ago by the European Commission is stalling. In response to the attitude deemed “unacceptable” by Rome, the French Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin, announced the suspension of the planned reception in France of 3,500 asylum seekers in Italy. This reaction is denounced as “unjustified” by Giorgia Meloni, who recalled that her country has welcomed almost 90,000 migrants this year.

These “relocations” are foreseen in the framework of a temporary European solidarity mechanism approved in June, which France itself launched during its six-month presidency of the EU Council. A dozen countries have pledged to take in around 8,000 asylum seekers in one year, France and Germany have each taken in 3,500, while only around a hundred relocations have taken place so far. But in Paris, the Interior Ministry no longer wants a “situation where the State itself (France) is called upon to receive vessels on its territory and also to carry out relocations from other Member States”.

VIDEO. Ocean Viking: Giorgia Meloni chastises an “incomprehensible and aggressive” reaction from Paris

In an attempt to relaunch this mechanism, the Commission presented an action plan on the central Mediterranean on Monday. It aims in particular to strengthen cooperation with countries of origin and transit, in particular Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, to prevent departures and increase the return of irregular migrants. This plan also aims to improve cooperation on sea rescue between member states, as well as with non-governmental organizations operating humanitarian vessels, and “to promote discussions within the International Maritime Organization” (IMO) on “lines guide for those vessels carrying out rescue operations at sea”.

130,000 arrivals via the Western Balkans

For Paris it is a question of “better framing the action of the NGOs”. “The idea is not to prohibit everything or allow everything”, but “there is currently uncertainty about these rights and duties” of NGOs, says one from the Ministry of the Interior. Italy, like Greece, Malta and Cyprus, points the finger at humanitarian organizations whose “private ships act in complete autonomy from the competent state authorities”.

Germany refuses to limit the action of these ships carrying out rescues at sea The High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, for his part recalled that “almost 2,000 people have died or have disappeared” in the Mediterranean since the beginning of the year . This Italian official underlined “the vital importance of rescue at sea by all actors”.

But some of the member states, including the Czech Republic which holds the rotating presidency of the EU, are more concerned about another migration route: that of the Western Balkans, the source of almost 130,000 irregular entries into the Union since the beginning of the year , according to the border agency Frontex, an increase of 160%. This route is at the origin of “more than half of the illegal arrivals of migrants on EU territory”, underlined Czech Interior Minister Vit Rakusan.

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