Migration dispute escalates between France and Italy

Spain stepped up and offered the Aquarius safe harbor after Italy and Malta both refused.

Far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini further raised the stakes suggesting a planned meeting between the two countries should be cancelled if France did not issue an "official apology".

France's Finance Ministry hoped to shortly reschedule a meeting with Italian Economy Minister Giovanni Tria that was canceled in the midst of a row over immigration, a French government source said.

How Europe should share the responsibility of handling migrants trying to get into the bloc from war zones and poor countries, largely across Africa and the Middle East, remains a vexed question.

Salvini called on France to apologise and said he was not prepared to take criticism from a country that regularly stopped migrants on their shared border.

United Nations refugee chief Filippo Grandi urged the European Union on Wednesday to sort out its "shameful" refugee policy after both Italy and Malta turned away a ship carrying hundreds of migrants. The Aquarius was heading for Spain on Wednesday.

Macron's office said Tuesday that France doesn't want to "start a precedent" that would allow some European countries to breach worldwide laws and rely on other EU member states to take in migrants.

The M5S-League government says that current European Union rules, which require migrants to seek asylum wherever in Europe they first arrive, leave Italy and its southern neighbours bearing the brunt of mass migration across the Mediterranean. Some countries feel justified in stopping migrants from entering when they should have registered elsewhere.

Salvini's League campaigned during the March 4 national election on a strong anti-migrant agenda that included promises of mass expulsions of migrants already here. According to government figures, Italy has accepted 640,000 migrants since 2014, but the number of arrivals this year is at a five-year low: 14,441 since January.

Earlier Wednesday, Salvini accused France of having caused the instability in Libya that has allowed smuggling networks to thrive by spearheading the 2011 NATO-led military campaign that led to the downfall of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.

Italy sent two ships operated by the Italian navy and coast guard to take on some of the migrant passengers and escort the ship on the voyage.

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday that Italy was "cynical and irresponsible" over the migrant vessel which had been left stranded in the Mediterranean after Italy and Malta refused to grant it permission to dock.

The furore comes after President Macron blasted Rome on Tuesday for closing its port to a ship with 629 migrants on board from attempting to enter the country.