by Eric J. Lyman
ROME, June 13 (Xinhua) -- Italy's hardline stance against migrant arrivals is starting to divide the European Union (EU) into two camps.
The country made worldwide headlines starting Sunday when it refused to allow the non-governmental rescue ship Aquarius and its 629 migrants and refugees on board to land in an Italian port. The vessel floated at sea with fuel and supplies running low before Spain allowed it to dock.
The policy is in line with promises by Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, head of the nationalist and anti-migrant party League, a ruling coalition partner. Salvini recently told reporters that Italy would not become "Europe's refugee camp" and that migrants already in the country should "get ready to pack (their) bags."
The remarks have revealed a divide within the EU.
Hungary, Slovakia and Austria have voiced support for Italy's tough policies against migrant arrivals, while Salvini's German counterpart Horst Seehofer has said Germany and Austria should work together at the interior ministry level in the areas of security, antiterrorism and immigration.
But Seehofer's views are at odds with those of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is opposed to turning refugees away at the border.
French President Emmanuel Macron blasted Italy for turning away Aquarius. "If the French coast had been the boat's closest shore it would have been allowed to dock," he said.
The French stance sparked a diplomatic row with Italy: Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte demanded an apology and when Macron refused, Conte threatened to cancel a summit between the two leaders.
"This country cannot accept hypocritical lessons from countries that have long preferred to turn their heads away on the immigration issue," Conte said.
Italy's recent moves were also widely criticized by the media in Spain and some northern European countries.
Then on Wednesday, Italy allowed Diciotti, an Italian Coast Guard vessel carrying more than 900 migrants from at least six different African countries, to dock in Sicily -- the difference being that the Diciotti is an Italian vessel that began its rescue operation before the standoff over Aquarius.
The fate of the more than 40 migrants reported to be aboard the U.S. Navy ship Trenton, based in Naples, Italy, remains unclear.
"Nobody knows what will happen next," Francesca Curi, director of a program on social and legal practices in the reception and integration of migrants at the University of Bologna, told Xinhua. "Obviously, Salvini is playing to the base support of the League. But if he follows through with his threats it will be very serious."
Giuseppe De Arcangelis, a professor of international economics at the La Sapienza University of Rome, said the problem is compounded because the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, is too weak to require states to fall in line.
"With each country taking its own path, the next few weeks will be key," De Arcangelis said in an interview. "Unless something changes we will have a disaster on the horizon."