Letta demands immediate EU action on migrant crisis

(By Paul Virgo)

(ANSA) - Rome, October 22 - Premier Enrico Letta on Tuesday demanded action from the European Union to help Italy with its migrant crisis, after two boat disasters that claimed around 400 lives this month.

"The European Union has been distracted for too long and it isn't any more," Letta told the Lower House.

"I hope that immediate acts follow. Italy will work for this".

Letta added that Italy would not accept "cut-price compromises" at this week's summit of European Union leaders in Brussels, at which he will raise the issue of the Mediterranean migrant crisis.

"Europe, because of its history and its deepest, noblest roots, cannot look on at such tragedies," Letta said referring to this month's migrant-boat disasters near to the Sicilian island of Lampedusa.

"If it does, it dies".

Letta said his government will demand four commitments from the EU at the summit on Thursday.

They are: acceptance that the situation in Lampedusa is a European problem; immediate measures to implement the Eurosur surveillance programme and beef up the activities of EU border agency Frontex in the southern Mediterranean; a plan of action to manage the migrant crisis; and dialogue with countries on the southern side of the Mediterranean.

Lampedusa is the main port of entry into Europe for migrants smuggled by boat from Libya or Tunisia.

Each year, thousands of people make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean in often rickety and overcrowded vessels.

Letta said the upcoming summit would be "an opportunity to talk about a different Europe" after many debates in the Italian parliament "in which we have talked about Europe being consumed by its contradictions and having lost its soul".

Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, meanwhile, called for more solidarity from EU member States in dealing with migrants.

"The reception of immigrants is a fixed point, but we cannot keep them all because, in a time of crisis, we have to concern ourselves with giving a dignified future to the Italian people," Alfano saod.

A spokesperson for European Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem said the content of Letta's speech "converged with the priorities previously announced by the Commission".

Malmstroem herself, on the other hand, threatened Italy with sanctions if more is not done to improve conditions at the overcrowded Lampedusa migrants' reception centre.

She said the 30 million euros in additional EU funding Italy recently received should be used to improve conditions on the island's massively overcrowded holding centre, which has been swamped with migrants who are rescued at sea or wash ashore after fleeing North Africa.

"Italy is making efforts to improve the overall situation," Malmstroem said in an interview with Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera.

"I think (those funds) could also be useful to alleviate the conditions in the Lampedusa centre".

The United Nations human rights agency in Italy has blasted deteriorating conditions at the centre, which was severely damaged in a 2011 fire that destroyed part of the facility and reduced its capacity to only 250 people from its original capacity of 850.

On Tuesday Letta also told the EU that it had to deliver hope that the economic crisis is ending, as well as diktats on financial rigour.

Letta has been lobbying for the EU to put greater emphasis on stoking growth and fighting unemployment since he was sworn in at the helm of a left-right grand-coalition government in April.

Under the emergency technocrat administration of Letta's predecessor, Mario Monti, Rome adopted EU-mandated austerity policies that helped move Italy out of the centre of the eurozone debt crisis, but deepened the country's longest recession in over two decades.

"Discipline in public finances is needed, but it's only socially acceptable if there is a reward, a turning point, an exit (from the crisis), a prospect for the future," Letta said.

"The right way to emerge from the crisis is to combine greater responsibility with greater solidarity".

He added that Italy's efforts to put its financial house in order would put it in a strong position when it takes the duty presidency of the European Union in the second half of 2014.

"We have to be ready, strengthened by the sacrifices made in recent years and proud of our European credentials," Letta said.

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