A European Union naval operation against migrant trafficking in the Mediterranean was cast in doubt on Wednesday after Germany announced it was withdrawing one of the task force’s three remaining ships.
German MPs blamed the decision on Italy’s refusal to allow rescued migrants to land at its ports.
But Matteo Salvini, the Italian deputy prime minister, responded by calling for the taskforce to be scrapped, claiming it was placing too much of a burden on Italy.
Operation Sophia was set up in 2015 to combat human traffickers smuggling people across the Mediterranean. It has rescued 45,000 migrants from drowning, but a House of Lords report last year branded it a failure that has led to migrant deaths.
Several Royal Navy ships have served in the task force, but its current strength has dwindled to just three vessels from Germany, Italy and Spain.
In a fresh blow this week Germany announced that it will not replace its frigate Augsburg, which is due to rotate out of the task force next month.
Operation Sophia was named after a baby born to a rescued migrant on board a German frigate in 2015.
Speaking after a briefing from military commanders, Fritz Felgentreu, chairman of the German parliament’s defence committee, said Italy’s refusal to accept migrants rescued by the task force meant the operation could no longer fulfil its mandate.
Germany is also said to feel the task force, which is under Italian command, has been operating too far from the North African coast to obtain useful information about smugglers.
Italy reacted to the move by calling for the task force to be scrapped altogether. “The point of the Sophia naval mission is that all the rescued immigrants disembark exclusively in Italy,” Mr Salvini told Radio Anch’io. “Either the rules change or the mission ends.”
The European Commission was quick to deny that it was considering scrapping the task force following the withdrawal of the German ship.
“Let me start by telling you that Operation Sophia was a success story,” Dimitris Avramopoulos, the migration commissioner, told a press conference. “There is no question of suspension of participation. I want to be very clear on that.”
Any formal move to scrap the task force have to come from Italy as the country in command, he said.