ROME – The presidents of Italy and France sought to tamp down tensions over migration Monday by asserting the need for “full cooperation” on a host of issues and the importance of strong bilateral relations after days of diplomatic barbs over the fate of migrants crossing the Mediterranean.
The offices of Presidents Sergio Mattarella and Emmanuel Macron issued identical statements Monday after the two leaders spoke by telephone. They “affirmed the great importance of relations between France and Italy and stressed the need to bring together the conditions for full cooperation in all areas, both bilaterally and within the European Union.”
While both are heads of state, Mattarella wields no real power in the day-to-day governing of Italy, which is handled by new far-right Premier Giorgia Meloni. France has a prime minister who is head of government, but is named by Macron, who holds the real power over French policy.
The diplomatic row erupted last week when Italy forced France’s hand to accept a humanitarian rescue ship, the Ocean Viking with 234 migrants aboard, after Italy had refused it a port for weeks. France retaliated by suspending its participation in an EU solidarity pact to accept 3,000 relocated migrants this year from Italy and sent officers to reinforce its southern border crossings and prevent migrants from entering.
Two people who disembarked from the Ocean Viking last week remained hospitalized Monday, according to the Var regional administration.
French officials were wrapping up security checks and initial asylum meetings Monday night for the 188 migrants taken to temporary lodging in the summer resort of Giens. The other passengers were unaccompanied minors who were taken by social workers to another, undisclosed location.
Those aboard the ship were from Eritrea, Syria, Egypt, Bangladesh and Pakistan, among other countries.
Italy’s new far-right-led government headed by Meloni has vowed that Italy will no longer be the primary port of entry for migrants leaving on smugglers’ boats from Libya and is demanding Europe do more to shoulder the burden and regulate the aid groups that operate rescue ships in the Mediterranean.
The issue was raised at a meeting of EU foreign ministers Monday in Brussels, even though it wasn't formally on the agenda.
“I would recall the importance of European unity, of responsibility when it comes to human life, and European solidarity. By the way, I want to take this opportunity to say thank you to the 11 countries that are helping France by taking refugees" from the Ocean Viking, France’s junior minister for European affairs, Laurence Boone, told reporters in Brussels.
Lorne Cook contributed from Brussels, Thomas Adamson and Angela Charlton contributed from Paris.