A Stranded Migrant Rescue Boat Reveals the Depths of the EU’s Crisis

Italy’s refusal to allow more than 600 migrants to disembark signals a bigger problem.

Migrants are pictured on the deck of the MV Aquarius in the central Mediterranean Sea on June 12, 2018. 
Migrants are pictured on the deck of the MV Aquarius in the central Mediterranean Sea on June 12, 2018.  (Reuters)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned last week of the threat facing the European Union if it fails to reach a common asylum policy. Her warning could not have been more prescient: One week later, a diplomatic crisis has broken out between France and Italy over what should be done about a rescue boat carrying more than 600 migrants off the Italian coast. And the crisis threatens to get worse.

It began over the weekend when Matteo Salvini, the interior minister of Italy’s new populist and right-wing government and the leader of the anti-immigration League party, vowed Sunday to block the MS Aquarius, a vessel carrying 629 migrants rescued from the sea off the coast of Libya, from docking at Italian ports. The boat is run by two NGOs, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and SOS Méditerranée. Salvini, who hinted Italy would take this approach with future NGO ships, suggested the boat dock in Malta instead. Malta’s government similarly refused to let the vessel disembark at its port.

Thankfully for the Aquarius, whose passengers include 123 unaccompanied minors and seven pregnant women, the diplomatic standoff didn’t last long. On Monday, the Spanish government stepped in, announcing that it would grant the vessel safe harbor at its port in Valencia. Salvini proclaimed Spain’s decision a “victory” for his government’s hardline immigration polices. MSF, however, was less celebratory. Though it welcomed the Spanish government’s “gesture of humanity” towards the hundreds of stranded migrants onboard, it noted that the new destination would require the vessel to travel an additional four days at sea amid deteriorating weather conditions.

Perhaps the person least impressed by the outcome was France’s Emmanuel Macron. Speaking at a cabinet meeting Tuesday, the French president blasted the Italian government’s “cynical and irresponsible” decision to block the boat from its ports. “If French coasts were a boat’s nearest shores, it would be able to dock,” Macron said, according to a government spokesperson.

But it is Italy, not France, whose ports have served as a main entry point to Europe for migrants crossing the Mediterranean—a retort the Italian government was quick to issue. Salvini said France has not shouldered its fair share of the burden when it comes to accepting migrants, and demanded an official apology. “We have nothing to learn about generosity, volunteerism, welcoming, and solidarity from anyone,” he said in a speech Wednesday to Italy’s parliament.

The diplomatic row escalated even further Wednesday when Italy summoned France’s ambassador to Rome over Macron’s criticisms, and cancelled a day-of meeting scheduled to take place between Italian Economy Minister Giovanni Tria and his French counterpart Bruno Le Maire. Salvini warned that Friday’s planned meeting between Macron and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte could also be cancelled.

That Italy chose to turn away these rescued migrants falls almost perfectly in line with its new government’s stated goals. As my colleague Rachel Donadio pointed out last week, its new government came to power in large part over the country’s concerns about immigration and the economy. The country has struggled to contend with the influx of hundreds of thousands of migrants arriving by boat in recent years. Now, the Italian government says, enough is enough.

Though the situation with the Aquarius has been solved for now, the conflict it has exposed within the EU has not. “These disputes run much deeper than the question of how to resolve the refugee crisis,” Matthew Goodwin, a visiting fellow at the London-based Chatham House and author of the forthcoming National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, told me. “They also reflect arguably irreconcilable differences in the values that EU member states hold. … There is an emerging alliance in Europe that is far more conservative in nature and more willing to defend the nation state and push back against their liberal rivals.”

It’s worth noting that Italy hasn’t barred all rescue vessels from accessing its ports. An Italian coast guard vessel carrying 937 rescued migrants was allowed to dock in Sicily on Wednesday, suggesting the Italian government’s new policy may impact vessels belonging to foreign NGOs exclusively. A rescue vessel called Sea-Watch 3, run by a German NGO, found itself blocked by Italian authorities a few days ago. “Little changes if the boat is called Aquarius or Sea-Watch 3,” Salvini said. “We want to put an end to this traffic in human beings. And so, as we have raised the problem for the Aquarius, we’ll do it for all the other boats.”

Until the EU can resolve how to share responsibility for migrants traveling to the bloc, Goodwin said the likelihood of future Aquariuses can’t be dismissed. “Public concerns over identity, borders, and security have become entwined with how people think about the EU,” he said. “This is why it is absolutely crucial for the EU, if it is to survive, to come up with coherent and effective policies in these areas—otherwise it risks a broader backlash.”