French-Italian migrant row caps a history of prickly relations


A war of words between France and Italy over migrants has set the scene for a testy European summit this week after the latest spat between neighbours with complicated relations for centuries.
Emmanuel Macron's rocky relationship with Italy's ruling populists worsened this weekend when far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini blasted the French president's "arrogant" stance on immigration.
Salvini further accused Macron of hypocrisy for criticising his hardline approach while France continues to "push back women, children and men" across the border back into Italy.
Macron, who argues that France has taken in more asylum seekers than Italy this year as the massive influx across the Mediterranean has slowed, hit back: "We won't take lessons from anyone."
The heated exchange overshadowed a weekend meeting in Brussels that was supposed to find better ways to handle the hundreds of thousands arriving from Africa, the Middle East and Asia since 2015. European leaders are set to meet on Thursday and Friday in Brussels to discuss the issue as well as eurozone reforms.
Macron was perhaps destined to get on badly with Salvini after coming to power in an election that pitched his pro-EU centrism against the far-right populism of Marine Le Pen.
He won no friends in Rome last week by likening anti-migrant sentiment to "leprosy", and compounded the row by suggesting that with arrival numbers down, Italy did not have a migrant crisis but a political one.
He had already attracted Italy's ire by criticising its refusal to take in 630 migrants onboard the Aquarius rescue ship, and a Franco-Spanish proposal for "closed" migrant camps in arrival countries went down similarly badly.
France's ambassador to Rome was summoned this month over the row, and while Macron is heading to the Vatican Tuesday to meet Pope Francis, he is not stopping in Rome to meet Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
"The political leaders of Italy and France have not treated each other this badly since they were at war," Aldo Cazzullo observed in the Corriere della Sera newspaper.
- From Napoleon to Libya -
Analysts say the chill reflects not just a clash of political worldviews but a long history of animosity.
The 20th century saw times of both bitter enmity during World War II and close cooperation as the neighbours worked together to build the EU afterwards.
Gilles Bertrand, co-author of a history of Franco-Italian relations since 1660, sees traces of centuries-old invasions by European powers, including France under Napoleon Bonaparte, in contemporary suspicions.
"Even though they are extremely close culturally, with ties going back to the Middle Ages -- commercial, intellectual, artistic -- it goes down badly when France acts superior," said Bertrand, a professor of modern history at the University of Grenoble Alpes.
More recently, resentment brimmed over the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya -- a former Italian colony -- which was heavily backed by France.
"The Italians are hugely sensitive when it comes to Libya," said Jean-Pierre Darnis, a lecturer at the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis who specialises in Franco-Italian relations.
"Their reading of it is that in 2011 France intervened in Libya to dislodge them" in their former sphere of influence, he told AFP.
Italy also views Libya's current lawlessness -- a driving force in the migrant exodus from the North African country -- as the direct result of the intervention, an additional source of anger, he said.
The bombing campaign was before Macron's time, but soon after his arrival in power last year he aggravated tensions over Libya again by organising a spontaneous peace conference independently of Italy.
- 'Economic colonialism' -
The last few years have also seen growing tensions between the neighbours over investment projects.
French companies invested heavily in Italy in the 1990s and 2000s, including luxury group LVMH's acquisition of the Fendi label in 2001 and Bulgari a decade later.
Yet the value of French takeovers since 2000 has been more than five times higher of the value of Italian takeovers in France, according to financial analysts Dealogic -- leading to regular accusations of "economic colonialism".
On this front, again, Macron's presidency got off to a bad start -- he temporarily nationalised the STX shipyard instead of giving a majority stake to Italy's Fincantieri, reneging on an agreement between Rome and the previous French government.
A face-saving deal was eventually worked out to hand the Italian shipbuilder 50 percent of STX, "but it did a huge amount of damage," said Darnis.
"It wiped out pretty much all of Macron's political capital in Italy," he added.
Italy called on Monday for migrant centres to be set up in Africa to stop a tide of asylum-seekers fleeing towards western Europe, as Rome raised pressure on its European Union partners to take a much tougher approach to immigration.
FILE PHOTO: Migrants at a naval base after being rescued by Libyan coast guards in Tripoli, Libya, June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny/File Photo
The new Italian government has closed its ports to charity ships operating in the Mediterranean, saying the EU must share the burden of disembarking the hundreds of migrants who are plucked from waters each month, mostly off the Libyan coast.
Italy, which lies close to Libya, has taken in 650,000 boat migrants since 2014. Its tough new approach has aggravated EU tensions over immigration policy and created concerns among investors.
“Reception and identification centres should be set up...,” Italy’s anti-immigration interior minister, Matteo Salvini, said on a visit to Libya, the departure point for most migrants trying to reach Europe by sea.
Meeting his counterpart in Libya’s internationally-recognised government Abdulsalam Ashour and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeg, Salvini thanked the Libyan coastguard for its “excellent work” in rescuing and intercepting migrants.
However, the Tripoli-based government, which does not control the whole of Libya, is unwilling to host reception centres itself. Maiteeg said that while his government was ready to tackle migration, “we completely reject any migrant camps in Libya”.
After returning to Italy, Salvini said such centres should be set up south of Libya, in Niger, Mali, Chad and Sudan.
Earlier, he said the EU should fund efforts in Africa to stop uncontrolled migration to Europe.
FILE PHOTO: Migrants disembark Italian coast guard vessel "Diciotti" in the port of Catania, Italy, June 13, 2018. REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello/File Photo
As EU leaders prepare to discuss immigration policy in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, Italy’s refusal to accept charity-run rescue ships has stranded hundreds of Africans at sea, their rescuers waiting for an EU country to accept them.
Rescue ship Lifeline, with more than 230 migrants aboard, is stuck in international waters in the Mediterranean. And a private cargo ship, the Alexander Maersk, has been waiting to be assigned a port since it picked up 113 migrants off southern Italy on Friday, the ship owner said.
Earlier this month, a vessel carrying more than 600 migrants on board was stranded before it was accepted by Spain.


Italy’s anti-immigration stance, criticised by human rights groups who say its risks lives at sea, has sharpened divisions in the EU, which took in more than a million refugees and migrants in 2015 alone.
It has irritated France, with European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau telling Rome that international law obliged it to let the Lifeline dock. Salvini responded by calling the minister “ignorant”.
The tensions have also reached Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel faces a revolt by her Bavarian conservative allies, the Christian Social Union (CSU), who want to take a tougher line on immigration from Africa.
The risk that Merkel’s allies could desert her on migration has unnerved investors, who sold off Italian bonds on Monday and bought safe-haven German Bunds, which tend to perform strongly in times of trouble in the euro zone.
CSU General Secretary Norbert Blume told Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper that it was time to act but added: “None of us wants to call into question the conservative alliance or the government.”
However, Andrea Nahles, leader of the Social Democrats, junior partner in the German coalition, said she doubted Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the CSU could still govern together.
Slideshow (2 Images)
The coalition is due to meet on Tuesday to discuss the immigration dispute.
In Italy, Salvini’s actions and rhetoric have been popular with voters, with his right-wing League party gaining ground in municipal elections on Sunday.
Salvini’s opponents accuse him of playing on fear, noting that crossings have fallen sharply since last July, after the previous Italian government targeted people-smuggling networks and Libya’s EU-trained coastguard stepped up interceptions.
Around 11,000 migrants have arrived in Italy from Libya so far this year, down more than 80 percent from the same periods in 2016 and 2017, Italian interior ministry data shows.
(For a graphic on migrant sea crossings
Interceptions of migrant boats by Libya’s coastguard have surged over the past week, with almost 1,000 African asylum-seekers picked up in one day on Sunday.
The interceptions have been criticised by human rights activists because of the dire conditions facing migrants in widely lawless Libya, where they often face physical abuse including torture and rape.
Salvini said Italy would give 20 patrol boats to the Libyan coastguard. “We’ll do all we can to make sure it’s the Libyan authorities that patrol Libyan waters,” he said, accusing some private rescue organisations of helping human traffickers.
He also played down reports of inhuman conditions in Libyan detention centres. He did not rule out abuses at informal camps, but said the U.N. refugee agency had assured him that rules were respected at the official centres.