Italy, France leaders put aside war of words, call for new approach to migration

The French leader Emmanuel Macron said Friday European solidarity didn't fulfil its role in recent years with Italy, the first European country on the migration route from North Africa. He is calling on Europe's leaders to come together to adapt to the refugee issue.

Macron said he didn't mean to offend when calling Italy irresponsible for turning away rescue ship

Migrants crowd the MV Aquarius, a search and rescue ship run in partnership between SOS Mediterranee and Medecins Sans Frontieres in the central Mediterranean Sea, on June 12. (Karpov/SOS Mediterranee/Reuters)

French President Emmanuel Macron said Friday Europe's response to mass migration has not adapted to the times and that reform is needed.

During a joint news conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Macron said "the proper response is European, but the existing European response is not adapted."

The French leader said European solidarity didn't fulfil its role in recent years with Italy, the first European country on the migration route from North Africa. Italy has been dealing with swelling numbers of arrivals the past two years after a Balkan route that led to a huge influx of refugees elsewhere in Europe in 2015 and 2016.

Macron called for greater protection of Europe's borders, saying "the existing system doesn't work."

A feud was triggered this week by Macron's tough assessment of Italy's decision to shut its ports to a rescue ship carrying 629 migrants — he called the Italian government's behaviour "irresponsible."

Macron said Friday he never meant to offend Italy.

Italy had initially insisted that Malta take in the Aquarius rescue ship. Malta refused, saying it wasn't involved in the rescue.

Spain stepped up to take the Aquarius in, with the vessel en route to Valencia but forced to have changed course Thursday due to rough weather.

Conte said it was "time to turn the page" on Italy's dispute with France over the Aquarius, which is now bound for Spain.

Conte said Italy is working on a proposal for a "radical paradigm change" in the way Europe manages migration that focuses on the countries of migrants' origin and transit.

Conte told the news conference that existing European Union regulations on asylum applications aren't working.

He said Italy plans to share the proposal for an "integrated" approach to migration when Austria takes over the EU's rotating presidency on July 1.

While the two leaders were engaged, Italy's foreign minister met with his Maltese counterpart.

The Italian foreign ministry said that Italy's Enzo Moavero Milanesi and Malta's Carmelo Abela met Friday in Rome and expressed "the shared desire to work together in tight co-ordination, especially in European capitals, about migration in terms of revising" EU asylum regulations.

Merkel not changing approach

Amid the quarrel this week, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz proposed an "axis of the willing" to tackle the problem of illegal migration.

Kurz said Italy and Germany would be the other members of the troika.

Macron said Friday talks of such an "axis" were an unfortunate reminder of Europe's past, referring to the fascist-led nations that fought together in the Second World War.

"I don't trust these catchphrases, which did not bring us luck in the course of history," Macron said.

Separately, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's government said it remains convinced that a European solution is needed for the refugee issue.

Merkel is scrambling domestically to hold together her conservative alliance while she pushes other European Union member states to show more solidarity on the issue of distributing refugees.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is again being confronted domestically with the refugee issue, this time while leading a tenuous coalition. (Hayoung Jeon/EPA-EFE)

The disagreement between Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) sister party threatens the future of her coalition three months after it took office, just as European divisions over migrants also come to a head.

"We must not contribute to weakening the European Union and purely national measures setting the tone again in Europe," said Merkel's spokesperson, Steffen Seibert.

"Then Europe wouldn't play the strong role in the world that's required now," he told reporters in Berlin.

Merkel refused a closed-door policy on the migrant issue, and more than 1.6 million people have arrived in Germany since 2014. The country of some 80 million now sees about 11,000 new asylum-seekers per month

The alleged rape and killing of a 14-year-old German girl by an Iraqi man, who was extradited from Iraq, has reignited the debate on migrants and followed a scandal at a regional office which wrongly granted asylum applications.

With files from CBC News and Reuters