Italian PM calls for EU solidarity on migration

Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte came in for criticism notably over Italy's hard line on migration as he addressed a plenary session at the European Parliament

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Tuesday urged European lawmakers to show a united front on migration, with the issue set to dominate the run-up to European elections in May.

Conte's speech mixed pro-bloc rhetoric with some criticism as he faced an often hostile audience at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

"The European project seems to have lost some of its momentum," said Conte, who heads a populist coalition government, regretting what he perceived as passivity in the face of economic crisis.

"Politics, if it is only at the service of the economy, misses its mark," the Italian head of government said in charging that the EU had "lost contact with the people" and was "incapable of understanding (their) true needs."

With Italy as a first point of entry to Europe for tens of thousands of migrants in recent years, Conte noted immigration was a bone of contention for voters on a continent seized by rising populism.

"We cannot go on" dealing with migrant flows via a series of emergency measures, Conte insisted.

He said the bloc required instead "a structural approach for a stable and efficient solution," including a mechanism forcing EU states to share out the burden.

Manfred Weber, leader of the European People's Party centre right grouping, responded by stating the assembly backed a fairer and more effective asylum policy that would provide greater solidarity and end the requirement to apply for asylum only in the first EU country reached.

However, fellow German Udo Bullmann, leader of the Socialists and Democrats grouping, blasted what he termed Italian "cynicism" in refusing to take in NGO migrant rescue boats at its ports.

That policy has earned Rome trenchant criticism and Conte drew more of the same over his country's spending plans and high public deficit, which led to a standoff with Brussels last year prior to the policy being watered down.

"Italy suffered badly from austerity," said Belgian Green lawmaker Philippe Lamberts, but "rather than seek to form alliances … your government chose confrontations which were theatrical and sterile," he chided Conte.

Conte meanwhile defended a recent meeting in France between deputy prime minister Luigi di Maio and French anti-government "yellow vest" protestors which caused a rumpus between Rome and Paris, saying the visit was made merely as a "party leader."