Over 26,000 illegal migrants have reached Italy by boat through the small Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, which is close to Tunisia. The Italian authorities have insisted other European countries must help take the burden.
Italy said last week that it would give six-month residence permits to all the migrants who have arrived since the beginning of the year.
Franco Frattini, the Italian foreign minister, said: “Thousands, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of migrants could come from Tunisia. It’s a purely European affair.”
But during bad-tempered European talks on Monday, Germany warned Italy that it will not accept the migrants and that Berlin will tear up the EU’s border-free travel arrangements to stop them.
“We cannot accept that a lot of employment migrants enter Europe through Italy,” said Hans-Peter Friedrich, Germany’s
interior minister at a meeting of EU justice ministers in Luxembourg.
“It cannot be in the interest of Europe for us to be forced to introduce new controls, so we hope the Italians will fulfil their duties.”
Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister
, has described the influx as a “human tsunami” that could lead to the break-up of the EU unless countries, such as Germany, accept quotas of refugees.
“Europe cannot get out of this. 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 at the weekend.
Italian coastguards on Monday said that two more boats carrying 226 people form Tunisia had arrived in an exodus which began after the country’s dictator, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, was overthrown in mid-January.
Roberto Maroni, the Italian interior minister, said Italy had to “consider if it is still worth being part of the EU” after the hostile reaction to its plan. ”It’s fine when Italy contributes to euro bail-outs, to wars, but on this very specific issue of helping us out, EU states are absolutely not willing to show solidarity,” he said.
If Italy issues travel documents to the Tunisians, Germany will respond by reversing the 1995 decision to abolish border controls, in a major blow to the EU.
France has warned it will also reinstate checks and that it will send the migrants back to Italy.
Maria Fekter, Austria’s interior minister, said: “Letting these people in would only pave the way for crime, and as minister in charge of security I cannot accept that.”
Joachim Herrmann, the interior minister for Bavaria, warned he would stop the refugees by using regional powers to reintroduce border controls on the German-Austrian border.
“We will not accept that the Italian government
simply declares that the Tunisian migrants are tourists and uses this to push them into other countries,” he told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper.
“They must be sent back to their homelands.”