Germany accuses Italy of sabotaging mission to rescue migrants at sea

Migrants on a fiberglass boat in the Mediterranean Sea, off the Libyan Coast, on Aug 12, 2018.
Migrants on a fiberglass boat in the Mediterranean Sea, off the Libyan Coast, on Aug 12, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

BERLIN (BLOOMBERG) - Chancellor Angela Merkel's defence minister accused Italy of sabotaging a migration rescue mission in the central Mediterranean Sea, sharply escalating a dispute between Berlin and Rome's populist government.

Germany on Tuesday (Jan 22) abruptly suspended the deployment of a naval vessel in the European Union's Sophia mission that had rescued scores of refugees. On Wednesday, Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, speaking on the margins of the World Economic Forum, said Sophia's Italian commanders had diverted German naval forces away from sea-rescue activity.

"The Italian command has sent our navy to the most far-flung corners of the Mediterranean Sea over the past nine months, where there are no smuggling routes and no routes for refugees," von der Leyen told reporters in Davos, Switzerland.

The German deployment "has had no sensible tasks for months".

At the heart of the flare-up is Italy's refusal to allow asylum seekers into its ports, a decision that has upended EU efforts, spearheaded by Merkel, to share the burden of taking in migrants.

The move comes as Matteo Salvini, the Italian deputy prime minister leading the country's anti-migration turn and head of the far-right League, ramps up his assault on the European establishment.

'Not Acceptable'

"Chancellor Merkel confirmed to me that they don't want to withdraw from Sophia," Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told reporters in Davos after meeting Merkel.

He said he told her that a new system was needed for fair distribution of migrants because "with Sophia, people who are rescued are brought to the closest Italian port. This is not acceptable."

German forces have rescued 22,000 refugees in the Mediterranean since the mission began in 2015, according to von der Leyen. About 2,275 migrants were estimated to have died or gone missing in 2018, according to data compiled by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

"If Germany leaves the mission, it's not a problem for me," Salvini said in an interview with Rai 1 radio station earlier in the day as reports of Germany's decision came through. "All the migrants are arriving in Italy anyway."

The spectacle of a maritime dispute between two large EU members compounded an already tense entanglement between Italy and France. Salvini predicted in the interview that he would have "new counterparts" in Paris or even Berlin after the European elections in May.

He also took a swipe at French President Emmanuel Macron."It seems to me that Macron has his issues with millions of French to whom he made promises and did not deliver," Salvini said.

"Merkel is weak," he added.

Illegal Trafficking

Salvini and his coalition partner-cum-rival, Luigi Di Maio of Italy's Five Star Movement, are competing for support in May's European Parliament elections as evidence grows that their confrontational style is hurting the Italian economy.

The Bank of Italy has cut its growth forecasts and signalled that the euro region's third-biggest economy might have slipped into recession at the end of 2018.

Earlier this week, the French government summoned the Italian ambassador after Di Maio said that France "never stopped colonising Africa" and is contributing to the waves of migration by holding back Africa's economic growth.

Germany will remain in support of Sophia, whose mission is to fight illegal trafficking of migrants and train the Libyan coast guard, von der Leyen said, but the vessel that was to deploy in February will remain on exercise in the North Sea. Germany will wait until Sophia's mission is clarified on the EU level, she said.

"We can be back down in the Mediterranean within 10 days at any time," Merkel's defence minister said. EU leaders will have to extend the mission beyond March 31, the ministry said earlier.