Spain’s generosity is Italy’s shame


THE brand new governments in Italy and Spain have already crossed swords over the issue of migrants. The right-wing and radical coalition led by Giuseppe Conte had blocked the landing in Italy of 629 migrants picked up at sea by a charity vessel. Libyan people-smugglers had launched these luckless refugees in rubber rafts unfit for Mediterranean summer storms.

Among them were seven pregnant women, 11 young children and 123 unaccompanied minors. When Rome refused to allow the charity boat Aquarius to discharge its human cargo in Sicily, a crisis loomed as the vessel was now badly overcrowded, supplies were running short and the sea state was deteriorating.

The Italians said the refugees should be landed in Malta but that island state also refused to accept them. Then as conditions on board the Aquarius continued to worsen, the new Spanish Premier Pedro Sánchez announced his country would provide a safe harbor for the refugees.

Ironically an Italian coastguard vessel has eased the crush on the small charity ship by taking some of its passengers and joining it on the voyage to Seville. It is indeed no less ironic that another Italian coastguard cutter was yesterday taking 937 more migrants to the Sicilian port of Catania. These people were scooped up by vessels from the EU naval rescue mission. This may constitute a mute EU challenge to the Italian government’s uncompromising rejection of further migrants. Rome would have found it hard to deny a landfall to refugees carried by one of its own naval vessels. This may however presage the withdrawal of the Italian navy from the EU rescue force followed by a refusal to allow further landings in Italy from the ships of its allies.

The Italian government has embarked upon a shamefully racist and xenophobic policy and France’s President Emmanuel Macron was right to call it out. He accused Rome of behaving cynically and irresponsibly. Privately he is said to have used far more choice terms to express his disgust.

In a terse rejoinder, Premier Conte said Macron was being hypocritical because France was itself blocking migrants at its border with Italy. But Conte either did not know or chose to ignore the fact that the French island of Corsica had also offered to take the Aquarius refugees. He also avoided the reality that a major reason for the tough French border checks is anti-terrorism. Unlike Italy, France had been hit by a series of major terrorist outrages in recent years. It was obvious, even to the lackluster former President Francois Hollande, that unrestricted internal European borders that existed because of the Schengen Agreement made the job of Daesh (the so-called IS) killers considerably easier.

Spaniards should today feel proud that they have stepped in to save these wretched people. But what will be their reaction if more refugees ships are turned away by the Italians? The majority of Germans was equally approving of Angela Merkel’s humane and visionary response in admitting over a million desperate asylum seekers. But premier Sanchez must be aware that the whole vexed issue of migration is providing a broad canvas on which Europe’s racists and Islamophobes can daub their foul messages of hate. The EU as a whole has failed to produce a coordinated response to the migrant crisis and thus empowered the bigots in Germany, Holland, Hungary, Poland, Austria and now Italy.