If Brexit and surging populism were not enough of a challenge for the creaking European Union, the plight of 629 migrants drifting at sea in search of a welcome port is exposing the widening divide in Europe over immigration.
The debate over how welcoming Europe should be to those fleeing their homelands began to boil Sunday when Italy refused entry to a humanitarian rescue vessel, the Aquarius, carrying hundreds of migrants who’d been rescued a day earlier after leaving Libya on overcrowded rubber dinghies.
Their timing could not have been poorer. A week on the job, Italy’s new hard-line interior minister, Matteo Salvini, appeared to be looking for an opportunity to take on the humanitarian groups that patrol the Mediterranean and who have helped bring hundreds of thousands of migrants to Italy over the last four years.
Salvini is head of the anti-migrant League party, which has promised to expel the 500,000 immigrants thought to be living illegally in Italy, and which this month formed Italy’s first populist government in a coalition with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement.
The two parties have won votes from Italians who believe the EU has turned its back while Italy absorbs the steady waves of migrants.
Once able to land in Italy and head north to wealthier countries like Germany and Sweden, most migrants are now forced to remain in Italy after both France and Austria tightened their borders.
As he stopped the Aquarius from reaching Italian soil on Sunday, Salvini announced that Italy would no longer be “Europe’s refugee camp” and insisted that Malta, the tiny island tucked between Italy and Libya, should take in the migrants since it was the nearest “safe port” to the rescue boat.
When Malta refused, Salvini stood firm as the Aquarius drifted between Italy and Malta with the migrants, including children and pregnant women, slowly running out of food and other supplies.
Spain’s new prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, finally agreed to take in the migrants, prompting Salvini to tweet out “Victory!” and “Evidently, raising one’s voice, something Italy has not done for years, pays.”
Sanchez quickly responded: “More than 600 people are abandoned to their fate in the Mediterranean and it is our obligation to avoid a catastrophe and offer a safe haven to these people.”
Spain’s justice minister, Dolores Delgado, said Italy risked prosecution for violating the human rights of the migrants, and Ximo Puig, president of the Valencia region where the Aquarius is now headed, called Salvini's stance “despicable.”
Doctors Without Borders, one of two humanitarian groups that run the rescue ship, also responded.
“Denying disembarkation to desperate people rescued at sea cannot be considered as a victory: It is the wrong response to the lack of responsibility and burden sharing between member states,” said Aloys Vimard, the organization’s project coordinator onboard Aquarius.
Vimard said migrants badly injured earlier at sea should be brought ashore for treatment and transferred later. As of now, the migrants are expected to reach Spain on Saturday.
French President Emmanuel Macron also weighed in, accusing Italy of acting “cynically and irresponsibly.”
Gabriel Attal, a spokesman for Macron’s party, said, “The position, the line of the Italian government makes you want to vomit. It is inadmissible to use human lives for petty politics, as is happening at the moment.”
France’s own policy on migrants, however, has not exactly been to throw open its borders. As part of a crackdown on migration, a one-year jail sentence has been proposed for anyone entering the country illegally.
Macron was also under fire this week for not allowing the Aquarius to dock in France, particularly after authorities on the French island of Corsica initially said they would take the vessel.
Stung by the French criticism, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said Italy would “not accept hypocritical lessons from countries that have always preferred to turn and look away when it comes to immigration.”
On Wednesday, the French ambassador in Rome was summoned to the foreign ministry, and Salvini demanded an apology from France and claimed it had yet to take in 9,000 migrants from Italy as promised in a 2015 EU quota deal.
The growing rift suggest that an EU summit on migration at the end of this month will likely be tense as Italy aligns itself with countries like Austria, Poland and Hungary, which oppose migration.
On Tuesday, Hungary’s anti-migrant leader Viktor Orban cheered Italy’s ban on boats carrying migrants, calling it "a great moment that could really bring changes in European policy on migration.”
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel was conciliatory, suggesting she wanted to help countries like Italy bear the brunt of migration.
Facing demands from her hard-line interior minister, Horst Seehofer, to turn away asylum-seekers who have previously registered in another European Union country, Merkel said, "What we should not do, from my point of view, is push the entire responsibility onto a few countries where the refugees arrive,"
She added, "What is important to me is deciding things together in Europe and not acting unilaterally.”
Seehofer, though, said he’s already forging an alliance with Salvini and the anti-migrant Austrian leader Sebastian Kurz to fight open borders.
Kurz called the emerging coalition an “axis of the willing.”
SOS Mediterranee, which runs the ship with Doctors Without Borders, made a plea, saying the trip to Spain was taking Aquarius away from the rescue area.