Head-on clash between France and Italy over the 230 migrants from the ‘Ocean Viking’

The good news is that the 230 migrants from the Ocean Viking They arrived yesterday at the French port of Toulon and were able to make landfall after three desperate weeks at sea. The bad news is that between France and Italy there is a serious crisis that raises fears of a permanent war over humanitarian rescues in the Mediterranean.

The exchange of accusations and the sour tone between Paris and Rome regarding migrants should not be normal between two founding countries of the EU and partners in NATO. In theory, the channels of dialogue are multiple. But the immigration challenge is inflammable political matter in both cases. Not only governments are facing. The respective extreme rights collide. Their ultranationalist discourses may seem identical, although in European practice they are incompatible.

The majority of migrants from Ocean Viking were transferred to a waiting area (euphemism for detention center), remote and isolated, on the Giens peninsula, where they can spend 20 days before their legal situation and destination are clarified. They may apply for political asylum. Nine European countries have offered to host a party.

A migrant needs urgent medical assistance and is transferred in a French Navy helicopter from the ‘Ocean Viking’

Photo by Vincenzo Circosta/AFP

The French Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, had very harsh words for the attitude of the Italian Government of refusing to receive the humanitarian ship in one of its ports, which were the closest, as dictated by international standards. Darmanin considered it “incomprehensible” and “unacceptable”. In retaliation, France reintroduced border controls on its border with Italy, in Menton, and suspended the planned reception of 3,500 migrants who are now on Italian soil.

For President Emmanuel Macron, the situation poses obvious political risks. The right, the extreme right and part of the press accuse him of being too soft and contradictory. It so happens that the Government is preparing a very controversial immigration reform, which plans to regularize a part of the undocumented to cover the thousands of vacant jobs in sectors such as construction or hospitality. The episode of Ocean Viking complicate the speech. The president makes himself vulnerable.

The right and the extreme right attack President Macron for being too soft

For Marine Le Pen, former presidential candidate of the National Rally (RN, extreme right), what happened “is a dramatic sign of Macron’s laxity” and “an incitement” for thousands of migrants “to risk their lives waiting for an Eldorado that does not exist” . For her, these humanitarian NGO boats should be forced to return the migrants to the port of origin. Deputy Éric Ciotti, from Los Republicanos (LR, right), was also very severe. The decision to host the ship shows a government “that has totally lost its mind.” Ciotti assured that the migrants will be installed in a “holiday club”, something that he described as “provocation for so many French people who suffer from being deprived of housing”.

The Italian Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, has not taken the French position well at all, and yesterday, at a press conference, she called the Elysee’s reaction “aggressive, incomprehensible and unjustifiable.” She appeared before journalists to talk about the economy, but out of interest in knowing what her government thought of the Paris version, the far-right did not hold her tongue and claimed to feel “very affected” by something that was not expected to cause anything such an annoyance to the French Government. Meloni contrasted the 230 migrants from the Ocean Viking and the harsh reaction after the first landing in France with the experience of Italy, which since the beginning of the year has received almost 90,000 migrants in its national territory.

The Italian president stressed again that a “European solution” to the migration issue in the Mediterranean is required, because she does not consider that it is only the countries most exposed due to their geographical position that should take charge of the reception. She defends the creation of distribution centers for migrants in Africa with European support and that those who arrive in Italy be distributed among the various member countries, a vision very similar to that of the liguista Matteo Salvini during his turbulent period as minister of the Inside.

Some of the migrandes of the 'Ocean Viking' arriving in France this Friday

Some of the migrandes of the ‘Ocean Viking’ arriving in France this Friday

CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP

The tension has already surfaced in the first migratory crisis since the Government of Brothers of Italy is in power. Although Meloni scored a bit forcing the Ocean Viking landing in France, three other foreign humanitarian ships have ended up landing in Italy. At first, Rome imposed a new strategy, that of selecting the migrants according to their vulnerability and trying to force the NGOs to return with the rest to international waters. But here, the new Minister of the Interior, Matteo Piantedosi, lost his pulse with the organizations, which refused to back down, after Italian officials and doctors let those initially rejected down, considering them also fragile people. In one of the ships there was a hunger strike; in the other, an outbreak of scabies.

With the migration issue, the tensions between two neighboring countries that in recent years, except for the period of Mario Draghi, had looked at each other with suspicion, return. Already during the Italian electoral campaign, Rome did not like that the French Minister for European Affairs, Laurence Boone, said that Paris was going to “monitor respect for the rights and freedoms” of the Italian right-wing government. Meloni saw it as an “unacceptable threat of interference against a sovereign EU state”.

Meloni adds fuel to the fire and criticizes the French attitude as “aggressive, incomprehensible and unjustifiable”

During the first stage of Giuseppe Conte as president, with the populists of the 5 Star Movement and the League, a real diplomatic conflict broke out after Paris called its ambassador in Rome for consultations over the meeting with Luigi Di Maio, then deputy prime minister, with the yellow vests.

An informal meeting with Macron on Meloni’s first day as prime minister seemed likely to calm the waters. Two weeks later, the estrangement is evident.