'Close the doors' - Salvini tweet signals rise of hard right in EU
For days the MV Aquarius rescue boat has ploughed the Mediterranean with no place to go, the fate of its passengers - more than 600 migrants - a shameful indictment of Europe's inability to rise to a common challenge.
The Aquarius - run by SOS Mediterranée and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) - is one of only three NGO vessels still carrying out rescue operations off the coast of Libya, still the main transit country for migrants hoping to get to Europe from sub-Saharan Africa.
So far this year, 44,570 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe and 792 have perished en route, according to the UN's International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
Last weekend the Aquarius fell victim to the new political dispensation in Italy - where the far-right Lega is partner in a populist government - when Lega's Matteo Salvini, the freshly installed interior minister, refused to allow the ship to dock in any Italian port.
"From today, Italy will also start to say no to human trafficking, no to the business of illegal immigration," he tweeted, along with the hashtag #chiudiamoiporti (close the doors).
The Aquarius was then rejected at ports in Malta and spent several days at sea before Spain's new Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez offered to take in the migrants, among them six pregnant women and more than 100 unaccompanied minors from more than 20 countries including Eritrea, Nigeria, Sudan and Ghana. They are due to arrive in Valencia tomorrow morning.
"The Mediterranean Sea must not become a mass grave," because it has always been "a bridge between cultures, nations, people from different races and languages, a bridge towards progress, commerce, contact, experiences and relationships," explained Monica Oltra, Valencia's regional vice president.
What happened this week not only highlights the ongoing migration challenge facing Europe but it also shows how much higher the stakes have become with the far-right now in government in several states, propelled to power in large part by exploiting anxieties over migration.
In Italy's case, the arrival of more than 640,000 mainly-African migrants over the past five years has fanned support for anti-immigration parties such as Lega, while centrist politicians have pleaded for other EU member states to help ease the burden.
Salvini, whose unashamedly xenophobic rhetoric formed a key part of his party's election campaign, appears determined to make the migration question his main priority even if Italy's denial of a safe harbour to the Aquarius this week sparked international outrage. He also plans to deport more than 500,000 migrants as part of his hardline approach.
Politicians and NGOs denounced Italy for what they described as a violation of not only its humanitarian duties but also international maritime law, which requires the nearest port to admit ships in distress.
France was particularly critical, with President Emmanuel Macron accusing the Italians of "cynicism and irresponsibility", prompting Salvini to respond that "saving lives is a duty, turning Italy into a huge refugee camp is not" and suggesting France could take the Aquarius passengers.
A spokesman for Macron's party La République en Marche was scathing in response: "The position, the line of the Italian government, makes you want to vomit. It is inadmissible to use human lives for petty politics."
Salvini demanded a formal apology and he reminded Macron to honour a 2015 deal to accept some 10,000 migrants under the EU quota system. The French ambassador to Rome was summoned in protest.
The spat almost resulted in the cancellation of a planned meeting on Thursday between Macron and Italy's new Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
The episode is a reminder of how the migration question has become one of the most worrisome faultlines within European politics, as EU member states jostle over how to share the burden at a time when the far-right across the bloc is making political capital out of the issue.
It is no surprise Salvini has already found sympathy and support from the governments of Hungary and Austria which also contain far-right elements.
They plan to make their mark at an EU summit due to take place later this month during which politicians will mull possible changes to asylum law.
Austria's right-wing chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose coalition partners have Nazi roots, has proposed that Italy, Germany and Austria form what he called an "axis of the willing" to tackle the migration challenge.
With Italy's new coalition government - an unlikely mix of populist political neophytes of far-right and leftist persuasions - only weeks old but already ruffling feathers with Salvini's scrappy approach, Europe's already difficult conversation about migration is about to get even more strained.