By Stefan J. Bos
Italy summoned the French ambassador after the French president accused the new populist Italian government of cynical, irresponsible behavior by refusing entry to a rescue ship with more than 629 people aboard.
The French and Italian governments were quarreling over immigration Wednesday, while hundreds of traumatized migrants remained in boats in the Mediterranean on their way to Spain after being refused entry into Italy.
Italy's government made clear that French criticism of its handling of the migrant ship Aquarius is "unacceptable," and is compromising their diplomatic relations.
Italian Minister of Interior Matteo Salvini confirmed to reporters that Italy’s foreign minister had summoned the French ambassador to Italy. The minister would ask the ambassador for an explanation for "the insults directed not only against the government but also against a nation which is among the first in the world regarding generosity, solidarity, and hospitality."
He added that Rome would in his words not accept 'insults' from French President Emmanuel Macron, who aimed at Italian authorities for turning away a ship full of migrants.
On Tuesday, French President Macron accused Italian authorities of ‘cynicism and irresponsibility’ for refusing to let the stranded rescue ship 'Aquarius' with 629 migrants aboard to dock in Sicily.
Spain has since offered the boat a ‘safe harbor.’
But the U.N. refugee agency chief Filippo Grandi said the bitter dispute over which European country should take in the rescue boat was "profoundly shameful" for the EU.
Grandi said the EU can expect more such incidents in coming weeks as long as it remains divided on its policies toward migrants and refugees.
Central Europe reacts
In what may be a breakthrough, the leader of Austria and Germany's conservative interior minister said their country would cooperate with Italy to tackle the problem of illegal migration.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said an "axis of the willing" between Rome, Vienna, and Berlin makes sense because the countries form one of the leading travel routes into Europe for migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean.
And even France's foreign ministry spokeswoman said Wednesday it is fully aware of the burden weighing on Italy amid the migrant crisis and of the efforts made by the country, which took in 640,000 migrants since 2014.
Amid the diplomatic tensions, there was some hope for migrants: An Italian coast guard vessel docked in Catania, Sicily with 932 migrants aboard.
The Diciotti was greeted in Catania's port by activists criticizing the new policy, with a banner draped at the port saying "Stop the attack on refugees."
The Diciotti was also carrying the human remains of two people who died during their voyage, a woman and a teenage boy.
Thirteen of the passengers disembarking in Catania are pregnant, and 208 are minors.
The passengers hailed from Eritrea, Sudan, Mali, Ivory Coast, and Guinea.
During the voyage to Sicily, four pregnant women and a man suffering from fever were evacuated urgently and taken to hospitals.