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EU tensions flare over migrants as Macron blasts Italy

French President Emmanuel Macron blasted Italy on Tuesday for “irresponsibility” after it turned away a rescue boat carrying African migrants, exposing deep tensions in the European Union over the issue.

The decision by Italy to stop the Aquarius rescue boat landing on its shores at the weekend with 629 migrants on board has created the first serious clash between the country’s new populist government and its EU partners.

During a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Macron accused Italy’s leaders of “cynicism and irresponsibility” and said they had broken international maritime law by refusing the boat the right to dock.

“In cases of distress, those with the closest coastline have a responsibility to respond,” spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said in unusually harsh criticism by Paris of its southern neighbour.

In response the Italian government said it would not accept “hypocritical lessons from countries that have preferred to look the other way on immigration,” apparently a reference to French reinforcements at its border with Italy.

For years, Italy has pleaded with its EU partners for help with a massive influx of arrivals from Africa that has seen 700,000 people cross the Mediterranean and land in the country since 2013.

Under existing rules, countries where migrants first arrive are required to process their asylum requests, placing the burden on Italy in particular, as well as fellow southern countries Greece and Spain.

EU leaders have set an end-of-June deadline for an overhaul of these so-called “Dublin rules”, but talks have been deadlocked for two years and there is little sign of a breakthrough.

– ‘Political ping pong’ –

Attempts to distribute refugees around the bloc’s 28 member states have consistently failed, with the surge in migrants fuelling anti-immigration, far-right political parties across Europe.

“We cannot continue the political ping pong on who is finally responsible for shouldering the responsiblity of migration or protecting external borders, because we all are,” EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said on Tuesday in Strasbourg.

The new government in Rome, which includes the far-right League party, came to power pledging to stop the boats and carry out mass deportations that could see hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants expelled.

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, the League leader, said last week that he would not let Italy become “Europe’s refugee camp”.

– EU foundations at risk? –

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel faced serious pressure on Tuesday from conservative allies in her coalition to take a firmer line on immigration which would also see migrants turned back at the border.

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, from Merkel’s Bavarian allies CSU, cancelled plans to present his “master plan” which was expected to propose toughening controls.

Merkel has resisted this because it would shift the problem to Germany’s neighbours — Austria in particular– and she has pleaded for burden-sharing and a new EU force to police the bloc’s external borders.

“I’ll tell you bluntly: if we cannot come up with a response to the migration challenges the very foundations of the EU will be at stake,” she warned last week.

Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have consistently either refused outright or resisted taking in refugees under a contested EU quota system.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban welcomed Italy’s decision, offering Rome his “complete support”.

“I am now convinced that what was lacking wasn’t the capacity, but the will” to halt migrant arrivals along the Mediterranean coast, Orban said in Budapest after meeting his Slovak counterpart Peter Pellegrini.

He added that he hoped Italy’s move “can bring a change to Europe’s migration policy” — an issue sure to figure prominently at a June 28-29 summit in Brussels.

EU members were supposed to be unveiling a blueprint for reforming and deepening links between the 19 countries that share the euro currency.

Macron has pushed for greater integration, but the creation of a new eurosceptic and far-right government in Rome had been expected to complicate efforts even before Tuesday’s flare-up.

A spokesman for Macron’s Republic on the Move party said earlier that the Italian government’s policy was “sickening.”

“The position, the line of the Italian government is sickening. It’s unacceptable to play politics with human lives which is what is happening at the moment,” Gabriel Attal told the Public Senat channel.

The 629 migrants on board the Aquarius ship — including pregnant women and scores of children — were heading for Spain on Tuesday after being rescued off the Libyan coast over the weekend.

Spain’s new Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez stepped in on Monday, offering the boat safe harbour in the eastern port city of Valencia.

He said there was a moral “obligation to help to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe.”