Macron ‘never meant to offend’ Italy with migrant comments

Pope says countries must unite on migration

French President Emmanuel Macron attends a visit at the 721 Rochefort air base in Saint-Agnant, France, on Thursday. — Reuters

PARIS —French President Emmanuel Macron attempted to resolve tensions with Italy on Thursday, saying he never meant to cause offense by criticizing its rejection of a migrant ship in remarks that sparked fury in Rome.

Macron had on Tuesday ignited the worst Franco-Italian diplomatic spat in years by accusing Rome of “cynicism and irresponsibility” for refusing to take in 629 migrants left stranded on a rescue ship that was eventually welcomed by Spain.

Rome summoned France’s ambassador over Macron’s comments and suggested a planned meeting between Macron and Italian President Giuseppe Conte in Paris on Friday could be canceled unless Paris issued an “official apology”.

As the war of words intensified, Italy’s new economy minister shelved a meeting on Wednesday with his French counterpart in Paris.

But the tensions appeared to have ebbed after a telephone call on Wednesday night between Macron and Conte.

“The president stressed that none of his comments were intended to offend Italy and the Italian people,” Macron’s office said in a statement.

Friday’s lunch meeting between the two leaders will go ahead as planned, the statement added.

The plight of the Aquarius rescue ship has shone a light on the failure of EU members to band together in the face of an unprecedented influx of migrants arriving across the Mediterranean since 2015.

Under EU rules, migrants must apply for asylum in the European country where they first arrive, putting pressure on Italy and Greece, the main entry points for people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

An EU scheme to distribute migrants equitably around the bloc has failed miserably, with central European members flatly refusing the quotas and others, including France, falling far short of their allocated target.

On Wednesday, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz hailed cooperation between the hardline interior ministers of Austria, Germany and Italy on the question of migrants.

“We believe an axis of the willing is needed to fight illegal migration,” he said.

More than 700,000 migrants have landed in Italy since 2013.

Many West Africans have continued on to France, only to be sent back to Italy to have their asylum claims processed there.

In a swipe at Macron, Italy’s government said on Tuesday it would not accept “hypocritical lessons from countries that have preferred to look the other way on immigration”.

Macron told Conte he has “always defended the need for greater European solidarity with the Italian people” and called for closer cooperation between Rome and Paris to try to check the migrant flows at their source — currently mainly in Africa.

Meanwhile, Pope Francis called on Thursday for a “change in mindset” on migration policies, saying international cooperation was vital.

Francis made his comments in a message to participants at a conference on international migration being held in the Vatican. He called for the “shared global management of international migration in the values of justice, solidarity and compassion”.

Francis, who has made defense of migrants and refugees a major plank of his papacy, said overcoming the current migration crisis “demands a change in mindset”.

He said countries “must move from considering others as threats to our comfort to valuing them as persons whose life experience and values can contribute greatly to the enrichment of our society.”

The pope said the trans-national dimension of the migration crisis required “the assistance of the entire international community” because it exceeded the capacity of individual states.

“Such international cooperation is important at every stage of migration: from departing one’s country of origin all the way to reaching one’s destination, as well as facilitating reentry and transit,” Francis said.

“In each of these countries, migrants are vulnerable, feeling alone and isolated. The recognition of this fact is vitally important if we wish to give a concrete and dignified response to this humanitarian challenge,” he said.

The conference, organized by the Vatican and Mexico, was attended by many ambassadors accredited to the Vatican. — Agencies