Meloni visited Lampedusa on Sunday with von der Leyen, who took a hard line cheered by Meloni’s supporters.
“We will decide who comes to the European Union, and under what circumstances. Not the smugglers,” von der Leyen said as she laid out a 10-point plan that included a pledge of support to prevent departures of smuggling boats by establishing “operational partnerships on anti-smuggling” with countries of origins and transit.
The plan envisages a possible “working arrangement between Tunisia and Frontex”, the EU border force with air and sea assets that currently assists search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, and a coordinating task force within Europol.
The commission hasn’t ruled out the possibility that a naval blockade is under consideration. “We have expressed the support to explore these possibilities” raised by Italy, its spokeswoman Anitta Hipper said.
Under the deal von der Leyen signed with Tunisia, the EU pledged to provide funds for equipment, training and technical support “to further improve the management of Tunisia’s borders”.
For example, the funds are helping to pay for the refurbishment of 17 vessels belonging to Tunisian authorities.
The latest influx is challenging unity within the EU, its member states and also in Meloni’s far-right led government, especially with European Parliament elections next year.
Some member countries have objected to the way von der Leyen pushed the Tunisia plan through and complained that they were not properly consulted.
But even in Italy it’s controversial. Vice Premier Matteo Salvini, head of the populist, right-wing League, has challenged the efficacy of Meloni’s deal and hosted French right-wing leader Marine Le Pen at an annual League rally in northern Italy on Sunday.
Just a few days earlier, Le Pen’s niece and far-right politician Marion Marechal was on Lampedusa blasting the French government’s response to the migration issue.
The French government of Emmanuel Macron has shifted right on migration and security issues, and this week, his interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, was heading to Rome for meetings. Darmanin said before he left that France would help Italy maintain its border to prevent people from arriving but was not prepared to take in migrants who have recently arrived in Lampedusa.
“Things are getting very difficult in Lampedusa. That’s why we should help our Italian friends. But there should not be a message given to people coming on our soil that they are welcomed in our countries no matter what,” he said on France’s Europe1 radio.
“Our will is to fully welcome those who should be welcomed, but we should absolutely send back those who have no reason to be in Europe,” he said, citing people arriving from Ivory Coast or Guinea or Gambia, arguing there was no obvious political reason to give them asylum.
Get a note directly from our foreign correspondents on what’s making headlines around the world. Sign up for our weekly What in the World newsletter.