August 29, 2018 / 1:47 PM / 3 months ago

Italy will owe interest if it withholds EU budget payments, commissioner says

FILE PHOTO: European Union Budget Commissioner Guenther Oettinger holds a news conference to present the EU executive's final proposal for the bloc's next long-term budget, in Brussels, Belgium, May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

BERLIN/CAIRO (Reuters) - European Union Commissioner Guenther Oettinger warned Italy on Wednesday that it would face interest payments if it does not pay its budget contributions on time due to a row over migrant policy.

Last week, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio threatened to withhold next year’s EU contributions if partners did not agree to take in rescued immigrants who were being held on a ship in an Italian port.

Then on Monday, after only Ireland and Albania offered to help with the migrants, Di Maio said Italy would veto the EU’s seven-year budget plan if the bloc does not start to share the burden of seaborne migrant arrivals.

“One can only warn Rome not to entwine questions on migrant policy with the EU budget,” Oettinger, a German who serves as the bloc’s budget commissioner, told Die Welt daily.

“All European members are obliged to pay their contributions on time. Anything else would be a breach of the treaty which would trigger interest payments,” he told the paper.

Italy’s annual contribution to the EU budget is around 14 billion euros. Asked about Oettinger’s remarks on Wednesday during a visit to Cairo, Di Maio said Italy’s position on vetoing the budget was unchanged.

“If in the coming days (EU partners) want to rediscover the spirit of solidarity on which the European Union was founded, maybe we can talk” about lifting the veto, he said.

Di Maio is the leader of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, which took power in June in coalition with the far-right League party. The new government has promised to make immigration one of its priorities.

About 650,000 people have reached Italy from North Africa since 2014. Rome wants other EU countries to accept a greater share of them.

Reporting by Madeline Chambers, additional reporting by Aidan Lewis in Cairo and Steve Scherer in Rome; Editing by Alison Williams

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