MILAN – A meeting of Italy's anti-migrant interior minister with like-minded Austrian populist leaders on Wednesday in Rome heralded a new hard-line axis forming in Europe on migration issues with pledges to more firmly protect Europe's southern border.
Italy's interior minister, Matteo Salvini, leveraged on his recent refusal to allow landfall in Sicily to a ship carrying some 630 migrants rescued at sea off the Libyan coast. The new Socialist government in Spain agreed to take them in, acknowledging Europe had abandoned Italy, after the tiny island nation of Malta also balked.
"It is a historic moment because Europe has never had the possibility to change like in these days. We think it can change for the better on the topics of immigration, security and the fight against terrorism. Finally there is a decision to protect the exterior border," Salvini said.
Salvini and his Austrian counterparts — vice chancellor Heinz Christian Strache and interior minister Herbert Kickl — signaled their common approach to reinforcing the exterior border while deferring specifics to Austria's EU presidency, and other forums, including an upcoming EU summit. Salvini said he was briefing Premier Conte and vice premier Luigi Di Maio on his proposals later in the day.
But Salvini made clear that he would continue to press neighbors to do more. While welcoming Spain's acceptance of the migrants, he noted that Spain has only taken 235 of an agreed-upon EU quota of 3,265. "They can take the next four boats that arrive," he said. He also slammed France, which has only taken 640 of the 9,800 migrants it has pledged to receive.
Salvini said he had trust in the Austrian EU presidency to make a difference in discussions about changing the Dublin accords, noting "the mood has changed," but also hinting that Italy would be willing to play hardball, and hold back payments to the EU, if significant changes were not made.
Salvini said he wanted to see EU funds better spent, and said he would travel to Libya, the main departure point for migrants heading to Italy, in the coming days to work on stemming the migrant tide as well as economic development issues.
While more than 640,000 migrants have arrived in Italy since 2014, the number of arrivals in Italy this year is down over 80 percent, to over 14,500.
Austria's interior minister, Kickl, said the message had to go out "that those who rely on traffickers have given up all chances of asylum in Europe."
Kickl said they were examining the possibility of setting up centers in the Balkans for asylum-seekers whose applications have been rejected, saying "if they stay in the country, there is no difference between a negative and a positive response."