Italy’s combative interior minister has again clashed with the European establishment, earning a vulgar rebuke from Luxembourg’s foreign minister over his views on immigration.
Matteo Salvini addressed a migration conference in Vienna on Friday and outlined his opposition to Italy accepting any more migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean from Libya and Tunisia.
He said he was totally opposed to the view, espoused by some European leaders, that with ageing populations, EU nations need to accept more migrants.
“I’ve heard colleagues say that we need immigration because the population of Europe is getting older, but I have a completely different viewpoint,” said Mr Salvini, who heads the anti-immigration League party.
“I believe that I’m in government in order to see that our young people have the number of children that they used to a few years ago and not to transplant the best of Africa’s youth to Europe.
“Maybe in Luxembourg they need to do this, but in Italy we need to help people have more children, rather than bring in modern-day slaves (from Africa) to replace the children we’re not having."
The remark provoked the irritation of Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s foreign minister, who was sitting close by and started mumbling “Blah, blah, blah.”
Mr Salvini asked the minister if he could be allowed to finish his address, but Mr Asselborn, who is also Luxembourg’s minister for immigration and asylum, lost his patience and interjected in French.
“In Luxembourg, sir, we have welcomed thousands of Italians who came to work in our country, as migrants, so that you in Italy had money for your children.”
He finished with the words “Merde, alors”.
Mr Salvini, who is head of the hard-Right League party, gleefully shared the recording of the confrontation with his three million followers on Facebook.
“Look at the reaction (of the minister),” he wrote. “He didn’t take it very well.”
Italy’s populist government, which came to power in June, has a fractious relationship with the EU.
Both Mr Salvini and Luigi Di Maio, his partner in the government, on Thursday rebuked a European commissioner for likening populist leaders in Europe to “little Mussolinis”.
Pierre Moscovici, the EU’s economics affairs commissioner, compared the current economic climate with the rise of Fascism and Nazism in the 1930s and said that while Europe was not menaced by a new Hitler, there were plenty of “little Mussolinis”.
The remark drew a furious response from Mr Salvini, who accused the French politician of insulting Italy and said he should “wash his mouth out”.
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Mr Salvini has managed to nearly double his party’s popularity since Italy’s general election in March, but critics accuse of him of fanning the flames of intolerance by using inflammatory rhetoric about migrants.
Filippo Grandi, the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, on Friday warned populist politicians across Europe not to “create space” for racism by using aggressive language.
“The language of politicians must not create space for racist attitudes,” Mr Grandi told a press conference in Rome.
He made the remarks a day after holding a meeting with Mr Salvini.
“I’m not accusing anyone, but the language of politicians has become very aggressive, not only in Italy,” he said.
Nearly 75,000 migrants and refugees have reached Europe by sea so far this year, compared to 129,000 over the same period last year, with the drop explained by the beefing up of the Libyan coast guard by the EU.
The number entering the EU by land, however, is sharply up – 18,000 so far this year, seven times more than during the same period in 2017.
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The most popular route is from Turkey to Greece, followed by Spain – nearly 6,000 have crossed into the Spanish-owned enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta on the coast of Morocco.
“Migrants from sub-Saharan countries represented more than three-quarters of all detections on this route,” Frontex, the EU border agency, said.
“The presence of some nationalities that in the past had mainly passed through Libya indicate that some migratory flows may have shifted to the Western Mediterranean route.”
Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, this week called for Frontex to be dramatically expanded, with the number of border guards to be raised from the current 1,600 to 10,000.