The European Commission has dismissed Italy’s threat to withhold funding to the bloc next year unless other member states accept migrants currently held on a ship moored in Sicily.
Alexander Winterstein, a spokesman for the European Commission, told reporters Friday that the EU “operates on rules, not threats,” and urged all parties involved to “work constructively together to find a solution for the persons on board in the spirit of good cooperation.”
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte later responded, slamming the EU for “hypocrisy” in a Facebook post.
Italian Coast Guard ship Ubaldo Diciotti picked up 190 migrants on August 15 from an overcrowded boat 17 miles from the island of Lampedusa after they were refused entry to Malta. Of those, 13 people suffering serious medical issues were taken to Lampedusa for treatment.
On Wednesday, an Interior Ministry spokesman told CNN, an additional 27 unaccompanied minors were allowed to disembark, leaving 150 adult migrants stuck aboard the vessel, which has been docked in the port of Catania since Monday. Italian authorities cited “humanitarian reasons” for allowing the children to go ashore.
The Interior Ministry said that all those remaining on the ship are being supplied with food and medical aid and none are in critical condition. The country’s hardline interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has refused to allow disembarkation until he has been given assurances that other countries will take the migrants.
Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio said in a video posted to Facebook on Thursday that if other EU countries didn’t agree to take in the migrants after a European Commission meeting on Friday then Italy would stop making payments to the EU.
“If the European Union stubbornly continues to keep this attitude, if tomorrow nothing comes out from the European Commission, if they decide nothing regarding the Diciotti vessel, on the redistribution of the migrants, then I and all the 5 Star Movement will no longer be willing to give 20 billion each year to the European Union.”
However, the European Commission told CNN it was not holding a meeting on Friday specifically on this issue before adding that negotiations were in progress. “Work has been ongoing since Sunday. This intense work is still ongoing. We do not comment on comments,” it said.
Finding a solution for those stranded aboard the vessel remains a “main priority” for the commission, Winterstein said, adding that “if it takes longer it is certainly not for lack of efforts on our parts.”
“As we have explained over these last days, the commissioners work intensively and continue to work intensively towards a resolution of the situation on board of the Diciotti in order to allow for a safe disembarkation as soon as possible,” Winterstein added.
Writing on Facebook later Friday, Prime Minister Conte said there is a gap between EU words and actions.
“Italy is forced to note that Europe today has lost a good opportunity: when it comes to immigration, it has failed to strike a blow towards the principles of solidarity and responsibility which are always invoked as fundamental values of European order,” said Conte.
While Italy and the EU clash over the distribution of migrants, charities and nongovernmental organizations working with refugees and migrants have expressed concern over the worsening situation.
Carlotta Sami, South Europe spokeswoman for the UN Refugee Agency, said on Twitter: “People on board have been abused, tortured, trafficked. They urgently need to receive assistance and the right to seek asylum. A fundamental right, not a crime.”