Italy used EU cash to send migrant boat to Spain in propaganda coup

Italy spent hundreds of thousands of euros in European Union funds to escort the Aquarius migrant boat to Spain after refusing it permission to land at Italian ports.

The new populist coalition government in Rome used the turning away of the Aquarius to signal a new tougher anti-migrant stance shortly after the far-right League and anti-establishment Five Star Movement came to power just days earlier.  

More than 600 refugees and migrants were left stranded at sea in a four-day standoff until Spain agreed to take in the charity boat at Valencia.

At least €200,000 euros (about £180,000), 90 percent of that journey’s costs, was paid for by cash from Brussels meant for emergency and rescue services in Italian waters, according to the EU Observer website, which made a freedom of information request to the Italian coastguard.

The embarrassing revelation that the EU had paid for the propaganda coup came as 177 migrants were refused permission to disembark in the Italian port of Catania for a sixth day in a row.  

Matteo Salvini, the interior minister and leader of the League, said they would not be allowed to set foot on the Sicilian port “until Europe steps into help”.

Mr Salvini demanded the migrants, who were saved by the Italian coastguard and are mostly Eritrean, be redistributed across the bloc “in a spirit of solidarity” or be sent back to Libya.

Mediterranean migration

Rome has already forced EU leaders into a marathon all night summit on migration, which briefly threatened to topple Angela Merkel amid domestic discontent at her open-door migration policy. The political crisis despite migrant numbers being far lower than at the height of the crisis. 

The European Commission, which is responsible for the disbursement of EU funds, said on Wednesday that it could not confirm that public money had been spent on escorting the Aquarius.

Despite the Freedom of Information request, the EU executive said it would stick to its standard procedures for verifying correct spending and that they would only take place at the end of the current reporting period.

 “We have the instruments in place to make sure the taxpayers’ money is spent exactly how it should be,” a spokesman told reporters in Brussels.

The commission could hold back future payments or demand the funds be reimbursed.

Rome has said it is tired of shouldering the brunt of the migration crisis without more help from other reticent EU member states, while the commission has struggled to paper over deep divisions in the bloc over reforms to migration policy.  

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Eastern European countries have refused to take in migrants resettled from Italy and richer Northern countries insist that arriving migrants must claim asylum in the first EU country they arrive in, which is usually poorer Southern nations such as Italy and Greece.

Meanwhile, more than 100 African migrants forced their way into the Spanish territory of Ceuta on Wednesday after storming a barbed-wire border fence with Morocco and attacking police with caustic quicklime.

In the second assault on the Spanish border in a month, seven police officers were lightly injured when migrants threw quicklime and battery acid as they tried to scale the fence, a spokesman for the Spanish government’s representative in Ceuta told AFP, adding that some 115 migrants managed to enter the tiny territory.