“There's a political crisis between Italy and the rest of Europe,” Macron said on Tuesday on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
“Italy has decided not to respect the rules of international law, and maritime and humanitarian law in particular.”
The French president was speaking after France, Germany, Spain and Portugal agreed to host 58 people who were picked up in the Mediterranean last week by the NGO ship Aquarius, which remained at sea for several days in search of a friendly port.
It was the latest standoff between a rescue ship and Italy's coalition government, which declared Italian ports closed to all ships carrying migrants – even Italian coastguard boats – after it took power in June.
In the latest crisis Italy, Malta and Tunisia refused the Aquarius harbour, and Italian authorities instructed it to hand the migrants over to the Libyan coastguard. The two organizations that operate the Aquarius, SOS Méditerranée and Doctors Without Borders, refused on the grounds that conditions in Libya are unsafe.
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Meanwhile the Italian government pressured Panama, the country whose flag the Aquarius sails under, to revoke its recognition, the charities said. The Aquarius has already had its flag revoked once before, by the territory of Gibraltar.
The 58 on board the Aquarius will now be transferred to a Maltese naval vessel and taken to Malta, it was announced on Tuesday, from where they will be distributed between the four other countries that have offered to host them. The Aquarius will proceed to Marseille in France, where SOS Méditerranée has a headquarters.
Responding to Macron's criticism, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said that the French president was entitled to his opinion, “but sometimes opinions are mistaken”.
“Macron represents France and not the EU,” Conte added. “We don't have any problems with France.”
Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who has been fiercely critical of Macron, was celebrating on Tuesday after EU sources cautiously welcomed parts of his proposals to make it easier for Italy to expel people whose request for asylum is denied.
Salvini's bill, which has yet to be approved by parliament, would also toughen the criteria for receiving permission to stay on humanitarian grounds and allowing Italy to strip naturalized Italians of their citizenship if they are found to have committed certain crimes.
Photo: Christophe Simon/AFP