On Saturday, Germany’s Foreign Ministry clarified that media reports suggesting Berlin’s intention to cease donations to NGOs operating migrant rescue vessels in the Mediterranean Sea were incorrect.
“The Foreign Ministry is following through on the Bundestag [parliament] assignment to promote civilian sea rescue with projects on land and sea,” a spokesperson told the dpa news agency on Saturday, issuing similar comments to Reuters as well.
Speculation that the scheme might be pulled — following criticism from Italy and other EU countries, and Chancellor Olaf Scholz appearing to distance himself from the scheme — had intensified when no mention of it could be found in a 2024 draft budget. But the Foreign Ministry described this omission as a “technical oversight.”
“Because of a technical oversight an explicit appraisal of the relevant budget funds was not included in the current draft of the 2024 budget plans,” the spokesperson said.
Plans were already in place to remedy this, they said, adding “promotion of sea rescues with the authority of the Bundestag is anticipated for the years from 2024 to 2026.”
German mass-circulation daily Bild had reported on Friday, citing the omission from the draft budget, that both Chancellor Scholz and the Foreign Ministry were now opposed to continuing the plan, following criticism from Italy and other EU members.
Donating funds to the migrant rescue charities is contentious in some front-line EU member states, which argue that the boats’ presence encourages people smugglers to embark on the dangerous journey.
Italy’s right-wing government led by Giorgia Meloni had in the past tried to stop several such boats from docking with rescued irregular migrants on board.
Meloni had also complained to Scholz about the German government’s plans on learning about them, inviting him to discuss the issue with her at his “earliest convenience.” The contents of her letter to Scholz also soon landed in Italian media.
On Friday, after meeting with Meloni on the sidelines of an informal EU migration summit in Spain, Scholz had distanced himself from the scheme somewhat, seeking to emphasize that it was the German parliament that had recommended the policy, not his office.
“I did not submit the recommendation,” Scholz said. Asked about his personal opinion on the policy, Scholz declined to offer one and instead repeated that he had not called for it.
The funds in question are comparatively modest at present by the standards of major governement spending — between €400,000 and €800,000 for two charities, one of which operates on land and the other at sea. It’s conceivable that more organizations might be approved for funding though.
Italy is the most common landing point for people trying to cross the Mediterrranean and reach Europe’s shores, with Greece, Spain and Cyprus also frequent points of arrival.
The policy had also been questioned, somewhat unusually, by entrepreneuer Elon Musk — with his questioning reference to it meeting a fairly terse response from the Foreign Ministry in Berlin.
“Is the German public aware of this?” Musk had asked, during a day where much of his focus online was migration in the US. “Yes. And it’s called saving lives,” came the Foreign Ministry’s response.
Italy and other southern European countries are struggling with rising numbers of new arrivals, seemingly prompted by an array of factors including comparatively calm seas late in the year and unrest in much of Africa but particularly Tunisia and Libya.
From January to October, some 194,000 migrants and refugees reached Spain, Italy, Malta, Greece and Cyprus by boat, compared to 112,000 in the same period last year, according to the International Organization for Migration.