Italy will continue to block rescue boats carrying migrants looking to dock in its ports, its interior minister announced Saturday. The position escalates the new populist government’s fight with other European countries on migration and asylum, thorny issues that have spurred intense debate in the U.S. as well.
Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who is also the leader of the nationalist League Party, said in a Facebook statement Saturday that in addition to an NGO ship that was refused entry last week, two other ships have arrived off the coast of Libya -- he said those boats won't be taken, either.
Italy, he said, “no longer wants to be complicit in the business of illegal immigration,” and such boats will have to find other non-Italian ports at which to dock.
Salvini’s League, which campaigned predominantly on tensions over mass migration, formed a coalition government with the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement in May and has so far shown no signs of backing down on its election rhetoric since forming the government in May.
Italy was condemned by some European countries, particularly France, for turning away a boat last week that was carrying 629 migrants.
The boat is expected to arrive in Spain late Saturday after Spain’s socialist government offered the boat harbor.
While humanitarian groups have claimed that the rescue boats are aiding migrants stranded off the Libyan coast, Salvini and others have accused such organizations of operating a taxi service for potential illegals and has called on other countries to share the burden of taking asylum seekers.
But after French President Emmanuel Macron accused Italy of “cynical” and “irresponsible” behavior, the government responded by summoning the French ambassador, demanding an apology and challenging Macron to take in more asylum seekers.
On Friday, Macron met with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in Paris and both leaders took a more conciliatory approach.
"The proper response is European, but the existing European response has not adapted," Macron said, while Conte called Macron "my friend Emmanuel."
Under European Union law, migrants must apply for asylum in the first country they enter. But this places a burden on countries such as Greece and Italy. The euroskeptic Italian government is likely to push for a reform of those laws ahead of a summit in Brussels later this month.
Italy’s tough stance on migration comes as populist and anti-migration parties surge across the continent, while those associated with more open immigration policies are being punished politically.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is fighting to keep her coalition government together after she has rejected a proposal by Interior Minister Horst Seehofer to turn away migrants who have already registered in other European countries. He also wants to block migrants whose asylum applications have already been rejected.
But Merkel has rejected the move, fearing that it could fracture the EU even further. Seehofer has threatened to forge ahead with the policy, a move that could well bring down Merkel’s government and lead to new elections.
Fox News’ Chris Irvine and The Associated Press contributed to this report.