The European Commission said Thursday it had called an emergency meeting on migration as Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini suggested he could resign in a dispute over migrants held on a coast guard ship.
Salvini, leader of the far-right League party, is in a standoff with Italian President Sergio Mattarella over whether 177 migrants rescued in the Mediterranean should be allowed to disembark from the Diciotti ship, docked in a Sicilian port for the last three days.
Salvini insists the migrants should only be allowed onto Italian soil if other EU countries agree to share responsibility for them. Mattarella favors letting the migrants disembark for humanitarian reasons. The head of state made a rare intervention in day-to-day politics to end a similar dispute last month by letting 67 migrants disembark from the Diciotti after another rescue operation.
But Salvini has declared he will not let Mattarella do the same thing this time. “Either you change the country or you change the minister,” he said in a video message on Wednesday evening.
Only 29 unaccompanied minors have been allowed to leave the boat so far.
The Italian dispute — which has also caused tension between the League and its governing partner, the 5Star Movement — reflects a broader European political conflict over migration that has highlighted stark divisions across the Continent.
At a summit in June, EU leaders declared after all-night talks that they had agreed on a range of migration measures, including setting up processing centers for asylum-seekers both inside and outside the bloc. But the leaders’ declaration was short on detail and officials have struggled to turn their words into action.
Alexander Winterstein, a European Commission spokesman, said the EU executive had been “in intense contact” about the Diciotti case since Sunday.
“We continue working towards a swift resolution so that people on board can be safely disembarked as soon as possible,” he told reporters at the Commission’s daily press briefing. “The priority for everyone should be to ensure these people receive the care they need.”
He said the Commission was stepping up “proactive work to finding a long-term durable EU solution” on migration and had called an informal meeting for Friday of “sherpas” — senior officials from national governments who coordinate EU policy.
The Commission said 12 member countries are expected to attend the meeting but could not give a definitive list of attendees at this stage. An EU diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said France, Austria, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Malta, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Greece and Ireland are all expected to be at the meeting.
“We have reached out to those member states that have provided support for recent operations as well as to other member states directly concerned and of course the meeting is open to any member state interested in finding EU solutions,” Winterstein said.
A second EU diplomat said the June summit declaration “was the product of sleep-deprived leaders who would have done everything to leave the room, but there’s not a consensus on what they meant.”
That view is underscored by notes of a July 11 meeting of EU ambassadors, obtained by POLITICO. They show, for example, that Sweden, backed by Spain, had the opposite view from Hungary on the meaning of the summit text.
“We can’t wait for member states to agree on the meaning, we are working with our interpretation for the time being,” a Commission official said.
Kait Bolongaro contributed reporting.