Why are France and Italy rowing over migrants and what are the consequences?

French-Italian relations soured this week amid a row over migrant rescues, with the two countries accusing each other of "incomprehensible" behaviour. Here's a look at what it all means.

Why are France and Italy rowing over migrants and what are the consequences?
A migrant child plays in a cardboard box with the inscription "France" aboard the Ocean Viking rescue ship on November 10th, 2022. France accepted the ship after Italy refused to allow it to dock.(Photo by Vincenzo Circosta / AFP)

A row between France and Italy escalated further on Friday morning, as Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni slammed what she called the French government’s “incomprehensible and unjustified” response to taking in a migrant rescue vessel rejected by Rome.

France had warned Italy of  “severe consequences” on Thursday after it accepted the Ocean Viking rescue ship carrying 234 migrants amid a blazing row over which country is responsible for them.

France has never before allowed a rescue vessel carrying migrants from the Mediterranean to land on its coast, but did so this time because Italy had refused access.

Italian leaders had on Wednesday claimed that France was ready to accept the ship – leading to suggestions that Italy’s government had tried to force France into accepting the rescue ship by announcing a deal when there wasn’t one.

Paris immediately hit back, saying on Thursday it would accept the ship but would suspend another deal to take thousands of migrants from Italy.

How did this start?

The Ocean Viking ship had initially sought access to Italy’s coast, closest to where the migrants were picked up, saying health and sanitary conditions onboard were rapidly worsening.

Italy refused, saying other nations must take in more of the thousands of migrants trying to reach Europe from North Africa every year.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin slammed Italy’s stance as “incomprehensible”, saying the Ocean Viking “is located without any doubt in Italy’s search and rescue zone”.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said on Thursday the Ocean Viking could dock at the port of Toulon and a third of the migrant passengers will be “relocated” to France. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

He slammed Italian authorities for “making the migrants wait at sea for 15 days”.

Later on Thursday and again on Friday, the Italian government also used the word “incomprehensible” to describe France’s response to allowing a migrant ship to disembark in a French port.

What’s behind Italy’s policy?

Italy’s refusal this week to allow migrants to disembark is a move that will please the new government’s far-right, Eurosceptic support base, and is thought also to be intended to force other countries to accept changes Italy wants to make to the EU-wide policy on accepting and distributing asylum seekers between member states.

Italy’s Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said this week that the government was sending a “signal” to other EU nations that international law must change.

READ ALSO: Anger as Italy accused of illegally rejecting migrants rescued at sea

Under international law, ships in distress or carrying rescued passengers must be allow entry in the nearest port of call – which means Italy and often Malta must take in those rescued after trying to cross the Mediterranean from Libya.

In June, around a dozen EU countries, including France, agreed to take in migrants who arrive in Italy and other main entry points.

People on the deck of the Ocean Viking rescue ship in the Gulf of Catania in the Mediterranean Sea in international waters on November 6th, 2022. (Photo by VINCENZO CIRCOSTA / AFP)

Rome wants “an agreement to establish, on the basis of population, how migrants with a right to asylum are relocated to various countries”, Tajani said ahead of a meeting of EU ministers next week.

But commentators said Italy’s tactic of apparently forcing France to take the ship could easily backfire.

The hardline policy is led by Meloni – the leader of the post-fascist Brothers of Italy party, who once said Italy should “repatriate migrants back to their countries and then sink the boats that rescued them” – and anti-immigrant League leader Matteo Salvini, known for his policy of closing Italian ports to rescue ships as interior minister in 2019.

Their hardline stance is expected to lead to strained ties that complicate decision-making on a range of subjects at the EU level.

“We’re seeing diplomatic arm-wrestling between France and Italy that could open a breach for similar conflicts, because Italy is clearly challenging a European accord (on migrants) that was in its favour,” Matthieu Tardis of the French Institute for International Relations told AFP.

How has France reacted?

Darmanin on Thursday warned of  “severe consequences” for Italy’s bilateral relations with France and the EU as a whole, and said Italy’s refusal to accept the migrants was “incomprehensible”.

He said France had acted according to its “humanitarian duty”, but the migrants were Italy’s responsibility under EU rules, and that the French move was an “exceptional” measure that would not guide future action.

What are the consequences?

The row has gone beyond a war of words as France has suspended a plan to take in 3,500 refugees currently in Italy under a European accord and urged Germany and other EU nations to do the same.

French police said on Friday it had also reinforced controls at Italian border crossings.

The flare-up of tensions echoes European migrant disputes four years ago, when French President Emmanuel Macron in particular clashed with Italy’s anti-immigrant interior minister Matteo Salvini.

Salvini, now back in government as infrastructure minister – meaning he has control of Italy’s ports – has again pledged to follow a hard line on preventing migrant arrivals.

The row over migrants marks a return to fractured relations between France and Italy after previous cooperation under Mario Draghi’s government.

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OPINION: Don’t believe the French PM, Macron won’t abandon pension reform quietly

The pensions battle in France is only just beginning and President Emmanuel Macron will risk anger on the streets rather than abandon his flagship reform quietly, writes John Lichfield.

OPINION: Don't believe the French PM, Macron won't abandon pension reform quietly

The massed ranks of opponents of pension reform were not so massed or so dense on the third day of nationwide protest yesterday. Only 757,000 people turned out, compared to 1,270,000 last Tuesday.

Rail, Metro, school and energy strikes were also less powerful – attracting, for instance only one in four rail workers, compared to one in two on the first day of action on 19 January.

Is the government winning? Are the protests fading now that the legislation has started its noisy journey through the National Assembly?

Not really. Not yet.

There is another big day of marches and some scattered strikes on Saturday. The eight trades union federations have chosen – unusually – to demonstrate at the weekend in the hope that private sector workers, unwilling to lose wages on a weekday, will turn out en masse.

The numbers game is crucial. Beneath their front of unity, the eight union federations are divided.  The gamble on weekend protests is the strategy proposed by the moderate unions, led by the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT).

READ ALSO: 5 minutes to understand . . . French pension reform

If the Saturday demos flop, the militant unions will want to move to open-ended strikes in key sectors like the railways, power plants, docks and oil refineries. That could bring the country – or at least the government – to its knees, they say.

Au contraire, say the moderate unions. Endless strikes would help President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne by angering public opinion which is now 70 percent against the reform.

The first few days of debate in the National Assembly this week have been just as noisy as the street protests. Left wing deputies have shouted and waved their arms a great deal in support of their 18,000 wrecking amendments.

The minority Borne government has won a series of modest victories. Its chances of completing the first reading by its self-imposed deadline of next Friday (17th Feb) remain uncertain.

All depends on the 61 centre-right Les Républicains (LR) deputies, who are supposedly committed to a modest pension reform long demanded by their own party. Modest? Macron and Borne want to move the official retirement age from 62 to 64 by 2030. Most European countries already retire officially at 65 or later.

A dozen or so of the LR deputies are playing a cat and mouse game. Whenever Prime Minister Borne answers them, they change their question.

At the weekend, she conceded that early retirement for people with “long careers” should be extended to those who start work between 20 and 21. No good, the Républicains rebels said. We want the exception to apply to anyone who worked in their teens – even during a summer holiday. That would make the reform meaningless, as even senior Républicains admit.

The leader of the centre-right awkward squad is a young man called Aurélien Pradié, aged 36, deputy for the Lot in the south west. Mark the name. He is a coming man in French politics – or so he believes at least.

Pradie says that he is a new kind of socially minded, centre-right politician, who can revive the near-defunct Les Républicains or Gaullist brand. So far, he appears to be a kind of “Jacques Chirac revisited”, a man with a sensitive ear for public opinion but few principles and no coherent ideas.

He might go far. But he will not take France very far. He represents a return to the muddle-along politics of the 1990s.   

The parliamentary arithmetic is tight. Macron and Borne need around 40 of the 61 centre-right deputies to vote with them. Pradié has between 12 and 20 followers.

The numbers on the street will influence the numbers in parliament. The stronger the public opposition, the more courageous or self-promoting Pradié and his supporters will become.

The size of Saturday’s demos will determine future union strategy. It may also decide whether Macron and Borne can steer the reform through a first reading in the National Assembly by the next Friday’s deadline.

Borne may have some more concessions to make on long careers but nothing much. She has already abandoned most of the financial savings expected from the reform this year and next. She cannot afford to give much more away or the whole reform will become pointless.

READ MORE: What is Article 49.3 and how often do French politicians use it?

If she cannot assemble the votes, she can use her nuclear weapon  – the government’s emergency power under Article 49.3 of the constitution to impose legislation without a vote. She has said several times that she has no plan to do so on such a sensitive subject.

Do not believe it. Macron has too much riding on pension reform to abandon it quietly. He will take the risk of conflagration on the streets and use 49.3 if he has to.

Is the battle won and lost? I fear it has only just begun.