Brussels has queried Italy's national budget as the country struggles with an influx of refugees. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has threatened to block the EU budget, citing a lack of solidarity. Karl Hoffmann reports.
It's an unusually gray fall morning at the Port of Messina. Captain Stefano Sogliuzzo carefully guides his patrol boat past ferries and fishing trawlers before picking up speed on the open water. The destination is grid square M1, 400 nautical miles off the coast of Libya, to rescue and detain refugees on behalf of Frontex, the European Union's border agency.
The Mediterranean is no longer just Italy's border, but the border to all of Europe.
"We're working together in Europe's interest, regardless of the flag we fly. This is about protecting our borders. We want to stop illegal activities to protect our country - not only Italy, I mean, but all of Europe," Sogliuzzo said.
A coalition of EU member states, Germany among them, works together in the southern Mediterranean, rescuing hundreds of people daily and bringing them to safety on Sicily or the Italian mainland. But that's where European solidarity ends. With the Balkan route closed, and France and Austria tightening their borders, Italy is where most refugees and migrants now end up. This year's arrivals are on track to well outpace last year's 160,000. As Italy is now carrying the main burden of receiving refugees the situation is slowly spinning out of control.
Many refugees, little money
Italy, which is still struggling to recover from the economic crisis and high unemployment, faces a dilemma: Brussels disapproves of its proposed national budget, which would lead to more debt. Rome in turn has begun to question European solidarity, with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi openly threatening to block the EU budget for the next fiscal year, especially if it means higher contributions from member states.
Renzi does not fear using refugee assistance as a means of underlining his demands for more flexibility towards Italy's economic crisis. "When on one hand Hungary, the Czech Republic or Slovakia complain about migrants, but on the other hand refuse to help us and want our money on top of that, then all Italians would agree with their government that there is no more money," Renzi said, sending a clear signal about the EU's failure to fairly distribute refugees across its member states. "We will put up our money when others contribute their share. Money does not pass through walls. Those who build walls will be waiting a long time for our money."
More than a political earthquake
Italy's financial troubles didn't begin with refugees, but with slow economic reform, corruption and high state spending. Nevertheless, it is the present situation that concerns many Italians.
Calls for stronger European solidarity have grown louder since Wednesday's powerful earthquakes in central Italy, a follow up to August's earthquake that together will cost the state billions. Images and interviews broadcast on Italian media of Italians who have lost everything, overshadow the situation further to the south: mass deaths of refugees in the Mediterranean - more than 3,800 this year, 10 times more than were caused by the August quake. These are figures that citizens of the EU no longer seem to be able to comprehend.
Meanwhile, refugees continue to arrive in Europe via Italy, many picked up by ships like the Monte Sperone. Their futures are uncertain once they arrive at overflowing centers that provide only the basic essentials due to limited funds. Left without basic rights and often exploited as slaves, some observers see the situation as an already ticking social time bomb. This ongoing crisis makes Renzi's move against Brussels not only a threat, but an urgent call for help.