Matteo Salvini, Italy’s far-Right interior minister, has threatened to close the country’s airports to block the rumoured repatriation of migrants on charter flights from Germany.
In a move likely to anger Berlin, Mr Salvini, the head of the anti-immigrant League Party and deputy prime minister, on Sunday said he would shut the airports in the same way he defied EU laws and closed Italy’s ports to prevent migrant arrivals.
The minister was responding to reports that Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, was preparing to send the first group of 40 migrants back to Italy on two flights scheduled to land in Rome this week.
Reports in Italian media say up to 40,000 migrants could be repatriated from Germany to Italy as Mrs Merkel comes under greater pressure ahead of Bavarian elections next week, but the Italian government has denied there is any agreement to step up migrant returns.
However, a spokesman for the German Interior Minister, Horst Seehofer, told the Italian news agency, Ansa: "No repatriation flights to Italy were being planned in the coming days."
Luigi Di Maio, deputy prime minister and head of the Five Star Movement, said “no agreement has been signed” between Germany and Italy for the “secondary movement” of migrants.
"If anyone in Berlin or Brussels is thinking of dumping dozens of immigrants in Italy through unauthorised charter flights they should know there is not and will not be any airport available,” Mr Salvini Tweeted on Sunday with the hashtag #aeroportichiusi (or #AirportsClosed).
“We will close the airports like we closed the ports,” he added.
Under the Dublin Treaty migrants are required to seek asylum in the first European country where they disembark but Italy’s populist coalition government has been working to overhaul the treaty, saying Italy has taken in too many migrants.
Mr Salvini’s latest comments are likely to anger his European counterparts, who he has already clashed with in recent days over Italy’s proposed budget deficit of 2.4 percent, which would be in breach of EU guidelines.
But his tough approach appears to be working in his favour.
A new poll published by Corriere Della Sera, an Italian daily, on Saturday showed the League’s popularity at all-time high of 34 percent, with its coalition partner the Five Star Movement down slightly to 28.5 percent.
The League’s former ally, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, was at 7.8 percent.
Mr Salvini is also looking to exploit anti-EU sentiment in Hungary, Poland and France in the run-up to next year’s European parliamentary elections and is expected to meet Marine Le Pen from the right-wing Rassemblement National, the new name of the National Front, in Rome on Monday.
So far this year 21,000 migrants have arrived in Italy by sea, compared to nearly 107,000 for the same period last year.
In September Italy’s coalition government passed a bill that will make it harder for migrants to claim humanitarian protection and easier to expel failed asylum seekers.
The decree, which is now before Parliament, is part of the coalition’s concerted efforts to reduce the number of migrants arriving by boat from North Africa and repatriate those who are denied asylum status.
Stephan Reichel, president of the German NGO Matteo, said Sunday the migrants and refugees he assisted in Germany were afraid of being sent back to Italy.
“I take care of many refugees who are being deported to Italy,” Mr Reichel told The Telegraph from Nuremberg.
“There is no shelter, there is nothing organised. Most of them have to sleep on the streets without medical care."
Mr Reichel’s organisation supports Catholic and protestant churches throughout Germany and helps more than 300 migrants from Africa, Syria, Afghanistan and other countries.
He described the Italian interior minister’s attitude as “racist and neofascist”.
“It is frightening,” he said. “In Germany we are trying to avoid it.”