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The Reason Behind the Tensions Between Italy-France: Ocean Viking

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As you may know, four non-governmental organization (NGO) ships have been searching for a safe harbor for hundreds of migrants rescued in the Mediterranean since the early days of November 2022. However, Italy, the closest nation to the ships, originally barred its ports to these ships before evacuating only those deemed “vulnerable” from the ships. However, all of the immigrants on the three ships were brought ashore until November 10, 2022. The fourth ship, Ocean Viking, which is operated by a French NGO but sails under the flag, has repeatedly requested permission to dock at the Italian ports but has been denied each time. The ship, unable to obtain authorization from Italy, attempted to obtain clearance from France, Spain, and Greece, but the situation remained unchanged.

In this regard, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin called on Rome. According to Darmanin’s comments, if Italy accepted the immigrants aboard the ships, France and Germany would accept some of them so that Italy would not be carry the burden of the immigrants alone.[1] However, the ship carrying 234 immigrants was denied by Rome and decided to head to the French port of Toulon to dock there. On November 10, 2022, the Paris administration stated that the ship and the refugees on board would be able to come ashore within the scope of “exceptional circumstances.”[2]  Thus, the refugees finally disembarked on 11 November 2022.

The reason for Italy’s stance on the issue stems from a new decree issued by Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi. According to the decree, Italy would use a “selective” approach in determining who will disembark from NGO ships. Those who are not considered “vulnerable” in this context will be forced to leave Italian waters and will be handed over to the nation whose flag is flying on the NGO ship. However, the main development that increased the tension between Rome-Paris was the fourth ship, not the first three ships. Italy was criticized by France for not allowing Ocean Viking to dock at its port. Because Italy has insisted that immigrants be admitted by the nations whose flags are visible on the ship. Furthermore, on November 8, 2022, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni congratulated France for taking the ship.[3] However, the Paris administration had not made such a commitment at the time of the Italian leader’s statement. Thus, Meloni’s words incited a diplomatic tension.

Darmanin claimed that because the ship was in the Italian search and rescue zone, Rome’s conduct breached international law. Indeed, when ships carrying people in need wishes to dock at a port, the nearest and safest port is expected to receive the ship. Paris interpreted the insistence of the Roman administration not to take the ship as “incomprehensible and unacceptable” and described Italy as “irresponsible.”[4] These criticisms from France increased the tension between the two countries.

Moreover, Paris wanted to take the matter one step further and retaliate against Rome. As part of a European Union (EU) scheme, France was to relocate 3,500 migrants from Italy to France in 2023. However, Darmanin remarked that France had “suspended all relocations” and that other EU nations should do the same.[5] Thus, the ship dispute will have ramifications in the future, not only in bilateral ties but also in the context of the EU.

Meloni, on the other hand, said that she was shocked by Paris’ “incomprehensible, unjustified and aggressive reaction.”[6] Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani also called France’s statements on the subject “disproportionate” and stated that his country accepts far more immigrants than the Paris administration, claiming that Italy fulfills its responsibilities but that other countries do not their part.[7]

As can be understood, the dispute began when Meloni acted early and thanked France for accepting the immigrants. Because this statement put French President Emmanuel Macron in a difficult situation and sparked a backlash from right-wing parties in France. For this reason, Darmanin tried to fend off criticisms in domestic politics by stating that the passengers on Ocean Viking belonged to the vulnerable group and that they must “fulfill their humanitarian duty.” However, Marine Le Pen, former Chairman of the National Rally, accused Macron of “dramatic laxity” in admitting the ship and stated that the French leader has failed to prevent “mass and anarchic immigration.”[8] This caused the Paris administration to raise its voice against Italy in order to calm the turmoils within its politics.

After harsh words from both sides, on 14 November 2022, the Presidents of the two countries made statements emphasizing the importance of developing good relations between the two allies and neighbors.[9] The important point here is that the Presidential position in Italy is purely symbolic. However, because he got along well with Macron, Italian President Sergio Mattarella may have attempted to resolve the tensions. However, because Meloni has actual authority, Mattarella’s remarks were insufficient to resolve the matter.

As you may know, for many years, the Franco-Italian relationship has maintained a cordial tone. In fact, during the period of the previous Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, the parties cooperated on many issues concerning the EU. However, the issue in question has resulted in the creation of strong rhetoric that EU partners generally avoid using against one another. During this crisis, the far-right Meloni administration, which was distrusted by Europe, indicated that it would pursue an immigration strategy centered on “Italy first” against France and the EU.

Another point to consider is that Meloni and Macron have quite different political ideals. Meloni is a leader who has far-right views. Macron, on the other hand, is a liberal that can be defined as centre-left. This might be reflected in the relations between Rome-Paris in the new period. It is important noting at this point that Meloni was outspoken in her criticism of France while she was in opposition.

In conclusion, Italy has demonstrated that it would not make concessions by drawing the line at immigration, a delicate topic in Europe. The friction between Italy and France, which comes at a time when Europe needs cooperation on many problems such as defense, economics, energy, and immigration, suggests that disputes in Continental Europe may increase. This might be interpreted as a future increase in the debates regarding the EU’s future.


[1] “Ocean Viking: Migrant Rescue Ship Allowed to Dock in France After Italy’s Refusal”, Euro News, https://www.euronews.com/2022/11/10/ocean-viking-migrant-rescue-ship-allowed-to-dock-in-france-after-italys-refusal, (Date of Accession: 15.11.2022).

[2] “Ocean Viking: The First Real Diplomatic Crisis between France and Italy?”, Euractiv, https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/news/ocean-viking-the-first-real-diplomatic-crisis-between-france-and-italy/, (Date of Accession: 15.11.2022).

[3] “Meloni Sparks Row by Prematurely Thanking France for Accepting Migrant Boat Italy Rejected”, The Telegraph, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2022/11/09/meloni-sparks-row-prematurely-thanking-france-accepting-migrant/ , (Date of Accession: 15.11.2022).

[4] “Lashing Out in Italy, France Allows Ocean Viking to Dock”, France 24, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20221110-lashing-out-at-italy-france-allows-ocean-viking-to-dock, (Date of Accession: 15.11.2022).

[5] “Ocean Viking: The…”, op. cit.

[6] “Meloni and Macron Clash over Migrants”, Politico, https://www.politico.eu/article/giorgia-meloni-emmanuel-macron-italy-france-clash-migrant-ship-ocean-viking/, (Date of Accession: 15.11.2022).

[7] “Tensions Mount between Italy, France over Migrant Rescue Ship”, Anadolu Agency, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/europe/tensions-mount-between-italy-france-over-migrant-rescue-ship/2734988, (Date of Accession: 15.11.2022).

[8] “Ocean Viking: Italy Defiant over Migrants Row with France”, BBC, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-63598797, (Date of Accession: 15.11.2022).

[9] “France, Italy Call for Good Ties, but Discord over Migrants Remains”, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/french-italian-presidents-agree-need-good-relations-after-dispute-over-migrants-2022-11-14/, (Date of Accession: 15.11.2022).

Özlem Deniz KAHRAMAN
Özlem Deniz KAHRAMAN, 2022 yılında Bilkent Üniversitesi İnsani Bilimler ve Edebiyat Fakültesi Mütercim Tercümanlık Bölümü’nden mezun olmuştur. Hâlihazırda Anadolu Üniversitesi’nin İkinci Üniversite Programı kapsamında Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nde öğrenciliğine devam etmektedir. Kahraman’ın başlıca ilgi alanları; Avrupa Birliği, Batı Avrupa, güvenlik ve kriz yönetimidir. Kahraman, iyi derecede İngilizce ve Fransızca bilmekte olup başlangıç seviyesinde de Çince bilmektedir.