A French minister compared Matteo Salvini to Pontius Pilate Wednesday, accusing the Italian populist of leaving African migrants to die in the Mediterranean.
“Mr. Salvini today, he’s like Pontius Pilate. It’s obscene,” French European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau told RTL radio, referring to the Roman magistrate best known for adjudicating at Christ’s execution.
“When there are people who are risking being drowned, Mr. Salvini prefers to look the other way.”
Loiseau was speaking about the standoff over the Aquarius 2, a charity-run rescue ship carrying 58 illegal migrants saved from the Mediterranean, which has been the subject of fraught negotiations between European countries after Italy refused to let the vessel dock.
France announced a solution Tuesday, with the 58 migrants on board to be distributed between France, Germany, Portugal, and Spain, after being allowed to disembark onto a Maltese boat.
The episode was just the latest standoff over where to allow rescued migrants to land since Italy’s new coalition government, which includes Salvini’s far-right Lega party, closed the country’s ports to migrant rescue vessels in June.
Under international law, people rescued at sea are supposed to be taken to the nearest safe port. With Libya not considered safe, the next closest ports are in Italy and Malta. But both governments have refused to let the ships dock, forcing other countries to act.
Salvini has accused the charity-run rescue ships of acting as a “taxi service” for human traffickers transporting African migrants from Libya to Italy; the closing of the ports has helped slash migrant arrivals to Italy by sea to about 20,000 this year, compared with 181,000 in 2016 and 119,000 in 2017. About 1,260 have died this year making the crossing to Italy.
The Aquarius 2 is the only remaining privately-run rescue vessel patrolling the migrant route between Libya and Italy, and it faces an uncertain future after being deregistered by Panama – under pressure from Italy, according to the charities that operate the vessel. Italy has denied pressuring Panama to deregister the ship.
The brinkmanship over the migrants has sparked terse words between European governments, with French President Emmanuel Macron saying there's a “political crisis” between Italy and the rest of the EU over migration.
On Wednesday, Salvini, who is Italy’s interior minister and deputy prime minister, hit back. “We don't take lessons on law and humanity from Mr Macron," he said. “In recent months he locked the border with Italy and turned back over 50,000 migrants — above all, women and children.”
Loiseau defended her president from Salvini’s criticism, saying that Macron had repeatedly taken responsibility for finding solutions to the standoffs caused by Italy’s stance. “Each time, it is Emmanuel Macron who organizes the reception and distribution of these shipwrecked, each time it is him who picks up the phone,” she said.
Cover image: Italian Interior minister Matteo Salvini talks during Atreju 2018 the feast of young people of the Fratelli d'Italia (Brothers of Italy) party, on the Tiber Island on September, 22 2018 in Rome, Italy. (Andrea Ronchini/NurPhoto via Getty Images)