As European Union ministers prepared to meet in Luxembourg Monday, an open argument between the European neighbours broke out over the weekend regarding the thousands of African asylum seekers arriving on the tiny Italian island.
“Italy must sort out its refugee problem itself,” Friedrich, of the Bavarian conservatives the Christian Social Union, told Monday’s edition of daily Die Welt.
At least 22,000 asylum-seekers have arrived by boat on Lampedusa – which is Europe’s most southern point – since political upheavals began to rock North Africa in January, eventually engulfing Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Most of the asylum-seekers are from Tunisia.
Italy is arguing that the problem should be tackled by Europe as a whole and that it simply has the geographical misfortune of having the most southern-lying piece of territory. It has issued the asylum-seekers with temporary residency permits that allow them to travel to other EU countries.
On Sunday, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said the situation was “not an Italian problem but a European (problem),” and even hinted at separating from the union.
“Europe is either something real and concrete, or it doesn’t exist. In that case, it is better if we separate and each follows his own fears and selfish concerns,” he said.
But under EU law, the country in which asylum-seekers land must deal with their refugee applications and their temporary residence while their claims to asylum are being assessed. At the heart of the dispute between Italy and other countries, notably Germany, is whether or not the asylum-seekers should be able to travel to other countries while they wait for their applications to be processed.
Friedrich said he would make it clear at the Monday meeting in Brussels that Italy was breaching the spirit of the Schengen agreement that allows visa-free travel between many European states.