EU slams Italy for budget threat

There will be a big price to pay if Italy withholds payments, Commissioner Günther Oettinger says

GAME CHANGERS
There will be a big price to pay if Italy withholds payments, Commissioner Günther Oettinger says. Günther Oettinger, the EU’s budget chief, threatened Italy’s populist government with “heavy sanctions” should it refuse to pay into the bloc’s coffers following a dispute over migration.

The Italian threat and Oettinger’s strongly-worded rebuke of an EU member country mark a further escalation in an already bitter, yearslong dispute over migration within the European Union. Italy’s threats and Oettinger’s harsh rebuke of an EU member state show that the ongoing row over migration in the European Union is intensifying.

The latest battle centers on whether 150 migrants rescued in the Mediterranean should be allowed to disembark from an Italian coast guard ship, the Diciotti, docked in a Sicilian port for the last four days. Most recently, it has centred on whether 150 migrants rescued in the Mediterranean should be allowed to alight from an Italian coastguard ship.

The government, comprising the far-right League and anti-establishment Five Star Movement, has announced that the migrants should not be allowed to disembark on Italian territory unless other EU members agree to take them in.

On Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, the Five Stars’ leader, said his party is no longer willing to “give €20 billion” to the EU if it fails to reach a decision on the redistribution of migrants. (An Italian official said the figure is actually €15 billion.)

European Budget Commissioner Oettinger responded harshly on Friday.

“If Italy would refuse to pay its contribution to the EUbudget, it would be the first time in the history of the EU. This would result in late payment interests. And a breach of Treaty obligations leading to possible further heavy sanctions,” he tweeted. “EU is a Community of law and values and all Member States must play by the rules. Each Member State is expected to fulfil its obligations and has a duty to cooperate. Cooperation not threats is the European solution.”

In his remarks, Di Maio tied his threat to a meeting of officials from 12 EU member countries to discuss migration in Brussels on Friday. That gathering ended without agreement — although the Commission insisted it was not a decision-making meeting. The Commission had also said the meeting’s agenda expanded beyond the specific case of the ship in Sicily. Italy tried and failed to change that, raising tensions in the room, an EU diplomat said.

“At the meeting, the Italians wanted to discuss the Diciotti but the others told them this was not the purpose,” the diplomat said. The scale of the divisions in the room was so high that “they were meant to sign a common declaration, but even that wasn’t possible.”

The Italian government appears split over the budget threat. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte reacted angrily on Facebook to the outcome of the Brussels meeting, saying that “Italy will draw the consequences.” But Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero said at an event in Rimini that paying into the EU budget is a “legal duty.”

Interior Minister and League leader Matteo Salvini, meanwhile, refused to soften his rhetoric. He said on Thursday that he wants to enact a policy, inspired by precedents in Australia, under which migrants would be sent back before even being identified — a plan that would violate international legislation including the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees.

Published: August 24, 2018