Spain’s decision to take in the hundreds of refugees and migrants aboard the Aquarius rescue ship stranded in the Mediterranean – as Italy and Malta argued over whose responsibility it was to rescue them – is an act of solidarity and kindness which may have helped prevent a humanitarian disaster.

Madrid’s act solved an immediate problem, however, and not a long-term one. It only served to highlight the fact that Europe’s migration policy is in shambles and needs to be seriously addressed before the situation gets further out of control. 

The new Spanish Foreign Minister, Josep Borrell, said Spain had very clear aims when it decided to welcome the migrants to the port of Valencia. “This is a shared problem and it has to be treated as a shared problem,” he said, adding that this was a “highly symbolic act” intended to jolt Europe out of its “ostrich politics” on migration.

Tackling migration is clearly a complex issue with no easy answers. EU Member States have different legal interpretations of international law and Europe has so far not been able to reach a consensus on how to deal with this phenomenon. Such squabbling can come at a cost: it can divert the EU’s attention away from key issues such as facing up to an assertive Russia, combating terrorism and how best to deal with the Trump administration in the US.

It can also cause unnecessary tensions within the bloc. This latest episode involving the Aquarius, for example, led to strained relations between Italy and France, traditionally the best of friends, after President Emmanuel Macron said Rome had acted with “cynicism and irresponsibility” by closing its ports to the migrant ship – leading to Rome demanding an apology.

The impasse over the Aquarius also dented Malta’s relations with Italy, with which we have traditionally enjoyed excellent bilateral relations. The walkout by 5-Star MPs in the Sicilian Parliament during an address by President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, as well as the statement by Italy’s Transport and Infrastructure Minister, Danilo Toninelli, that Malta should either assume responsibility for its search and rescue area or relinquish it to Italy, were not something one would expect from a fellow EU member, let alone from such a close ally. 

While Malta is legally correct not to have taken in the Aquarius – it is only obliged to allow migrants in if they are closer to a Maltese port than that of any other country – Italy’s frustration with the situation is understandable. In the last decade Italy has taken in 800,000 African migrants, including 120,000 last year, with very little help from its European partners. 

Of course, it would have been better had Italy’s new right-wing Interior Minister Matteo Salvini not broken international law by refusing to allow the migrant boat into an Italian port – this sets a dangerous precedent. Nevertheless, his behaviour, however reprehensible, might just shake the EU into action over migration.

Mr Salvini, like his predecessors, is correct in calling on other EU Member States to take in their fair share of migrants.  Although solidarity is meant to be one of the defining pillars of the EU, few European countries put this concept into practice when the Mediterranean frontline states were faced with a huge influx of migrants.

However, it is indeed ironic that Mr Salvini’s request for burden sharing has been bitterly opposed by a number of populist Eastern European leaders, in particular Hungary’s Prime Minister Victor Orban, whom he considers an ally. Mr Salvini should therefore get his priorities right: does he truly believe that the burden of migration should be shared by the EU Member States or does he believe that this should be the prerogative of individual countries, as Mr Orban has been suggesting?

It is also pertinent to point out that Malta is one of only two countries which accepted its share of migrant quotas from countries such as Italy and Greece, and that Malta also had the second-highest rate of asylum applications after Sweden.  Italy’s irritation, therefore, should not be directed at Malta but towards the EU’s slow progress at tackling migration.

Migration should be high on the agenda at the next European Council, to be attended by Italy’s new Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. It will be an opportunity for Prof. Conte to explain Italy’s position to his fellow EU leaders. 

Time is running out for Europe to adequately tackle migration and this month’s EU summit should not end in a vague compromise which means little in practice. Efforts must be made to reform the Dublin agreement, further secure the EU’s external borders, crack down on human traffickers, increase efforts to stabilise the situation in Libya, consider establishing humanely-run EU reception centres for migrants outside the bloc, increase aid to the African countries from where migrants are fleeing and continue to make the case for burden-sharing, so as to take the pressure off countries such as Italy and Greece.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial