Matteo Renzi.jpg
Photograph: EPA/STEPHANIE LECOCQ EPA/STEPHANIE LECOCQ

Central and Eastern European countries unwilling to accept asylum seekers should be punished for their lack of "solidarity" with a cut in European Union funding, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi suggested Monday.

Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary - large recipients of EU regional aid funds - have baulked at a European Commission plan to redistribute across the EU of tens of thousands of asylum seekers who have landed on Italian and Greek shores.

"If you don't show solidarity on migration, I think it is absolutely legitimate for bigger countries to not show solidarity on [EU budget] contributions," Renzi said at a press conference at the foreign press club in Rome.

The Italian leader said he raised the issue at last week's EU summit in Brussels, warning that Rome will play hardball in upcoming talks on the 2020-26 EU budget in retaliation for the anti-migrant stance of the so-called Visegrad countries.

Those nations owe a debt of gratitude to leaders of older EU members who "took risks and sometimes also lost their jobs" to defend their admission into the bloc in 2004, against public opinions worried by the spectre of job-stealing "Polish plumbers," Renzi said.

"You cannot imagine that Germany, Austria, Sweden, Italy take on their own all the burden of migrants and refugees and at the same time give economic aid to all the others," the Italian premier insisted.

Commenting on Austria's decision to limit refugee numbers and step up border controls with Italy and Slovenia - the latest challenge to Europe's border-free Schengen zone - Renzi said Vienna was under great pressure from migrants but had chosen the wrong response.

"We cannot accept a return to the principle of barriers and quotas for asylum seekers. I hope that we will work very seriously [...] between now and the next European Council to solve the Austrian problem, but it won't be easy," he said.

In recent months, Renzi has emerged as a leading critic of EU policies on migration, energy, banking regulation and budget discipline, putting him increasingly at odds with the European Commission and Germany, the EU's most influential member.

Speaking to the foreign press on the two-year anniversary of his government, and ahead of Friday's visit to Rome by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, he said he was not courting eurosceptic opinion, but sincerely wanted to reform the EU.

Renzi also warned British voters against voting to exit the bloc. "If the UK leaves Europe, the main problem will be for the UK, for its firms, its businessmen and for its citizens, and this is why I am convinced that common sense will prevail in the end," he said.

Later Monday, the Italian government published a 9-page blueprint for EU reforms, including calls to set up a eurozone unemployment benefits scheme, a common euro area budget and finance minister, and criticism of Germany's large trade surplus.

"Very large current account surpluses [like Germany's] have a negative impact on the overall functioning of the eurozone just as current account deficits," it said, urging the EU commission to sanction such practices "more effectively."

The paper noted citizens' "difficulties in perceiveing the added value of being part of the European Union" and rising support for populist parties, and said the bloc needed a "strategy to restore sustained growth and boost jobs."

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