Italy and the European Commission clashed yesterday in a showdown over Europe’s migrant crisis, with a top EU official also taking aim at the leadership of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
The row comes as the 28-country European Union is struggling to get a convincing handle on the migrant crisis and show unity, despite warnings that the bloc’s credibility hangs in the balance.
Italy has been accused of hampering €3bn ($3.3bn) in refugee aid for Turkey, which has been promised as part of a deal to slow the flow of migrants travelling towards Europe.
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker did not deny the claim when asked about it at a press conference in Brussels yesterday morning.
He said he cannot understand the “surprising Italian reticence when it comes to the co-financing of Syrian refugees in Turkey”.
He then went on to scold Renzi for “vilifying and criticising the commission on every street corner”.
Italian Finance Minister Pier Carlo Padoan, however, denied that his country was blocking the refugee aid.
“Italy is fully supportive of the initiative to provide Turkey with relevant resources to deal with the refugee issue,” he told journalists in Brussels, where he was attending a meeting of EU finance ministers.
But he added that his country would like the €3bn to come from the EU budget, rather than being requested from member states.
“We are talking about huge money here,” Padoan said.
The finance ministers discussed the issue at their talks.
Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who chaired the meeting as his country holds the EU’s rotating presidency, said setting up the refugee aid for Turkey “needs to be done at the greatest speed”.
“The European reputation has been damaged by the way the Europeans were not bringing the problem of the refugees to an acceptable solution,” Juncker added.
Padoan said Italy wants to “strengthen” the EU, but as “one of the main countries” in the bloc also expects to be listened to and treated as other member states are.
Renzi had last month complained that the EU gives preferential treatment to Germany – the bloc’s economic powerhouse – at the expense of other member states.
The Italian leader in the past has also irritated Brussels officials by dismissing them as mere technocrats.
Juncker acknowledged that the “mood between Italy and the rest of the EU, and the commission in particular is not the best ever”.
He said he planned to visit Italy at the end of February to “resolve this thing with the Italians”.
“Italy, to be honest, should not criticise the commission too much,” the chief of the EU’s executive said. “I accept all criticism, that’s not the problem, but it should be justified.”
He also accused Renzi, who has been in power for almost two years and is among Europe’s youngest leaders, of falsely claiming responsibility for measures introduced by Juncker – one of the EU’s longest-serving politicians.
“I would like us to stick to reality and the truth,” the Commission president said.
“The commission is being insulted. I grin and bear it, I put my resentment and my irritation – which is significant – in my pocket. But people should stop thinking that I’m naive. I am not.”
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