June 25, 2015 / 12:50 PM / in 2 years

Internal Italian splits may hurt Renzi's case for EU help on migrants

ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi may find it harder to enlist help from EU partners in tackling an influx of migrants after failing at talks to resolve divisions among Italy’s regions over how to share the burden of the newcomers.

A migrant waits to disembark from the Norwegian vessel Siem Pilot Stavanger in the Sicilian harbor of Palermo, Italy June 24, 2015. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane

Undercutting Renzi’s position before he flew to Brussels for a European Union summit on Thursday, leaders of Italy’s regional and city governments emerged from the talks sticking to party lines and showing no inclination to unite over a crisis that has eroded the popularity of the national government.

The Brussels summit will look for ways to spread the load of receiving hundreds of thousands fleeing poverty and war in Africa and the Middle East. Italy has so far borne the brunt of those trying to cross the Mediterranean in rickety boats, and has been trying to convince the EU to help it cope.

But Italy’s relatively impoverished south, where most migrants are brought ashore, has also called on its wealthy north to take in more of them.

Official estimates put the total number of boat migrants reaching Italy at 60,000 so far this year. Almost 2,000 have died trying to make the crossing, the U.N. refugee agency says.

The anti-immigrant Northern League party, which runs several regions in Italy’s north, threatened to reject further arrivals of migrants who are distributed to reception centers around the country after they arrive on the southern coast.

“It was a totally useless meeting, the chaos will continue,” said Roberto Maroni, president of the northern Lombardy region around Milan. “Dear Mr Renzi, you have to change method, we are not willing to welcome new migrants because we are full up.”

The League’s popular support has surged over the past year as its leader Matteo Salvini has shifted its focus away from seeking greater autonomy for the north toward tapping into public hostility toward impoverished migrants.

The League is increasingly backed on the issue by the center-right Forza Italia party of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Regional government chiefs and mayors from Renzi’s center-left Democratic Party accused the opposition of “demagoguery” and of irresponsibly exploiting the crisis.

“The north can’t say ‘we don’t want them because they hurt the tourist industry’,” said Rosario Crocetta, president of the island of Sicily where many rescued migrants are brought ashore.

“We have serious economic problems in Sicily, but we need to help these people,” he said.

Italy must present a united front in order to press its case for a fairer distribution of migrants around the 28-nation EU, said Debora Serracchiani, deputy PD leader and also president of the northeastern region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

But her unity appeal got short shrift from Luca Zaia, the Northern League president of the northern Veneto region, who won a crushing victory over his PD rival in elections last month.

“It is right to rebel, I don’t even answer the phone when the government calls,” he said.

Reporting by Philip Pullella; Writing by Gavin Jones; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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