Italy has summoned France's envoy and angrily rejected French criticism of its immigration policies, escalating a diplomatic standoff that widens one of Europe's main political fault lines.

Italian economy minister Giovanni Tria also cancelled a meeting with his counterpart in Paris, a day after French President Emmanuel Macron said Rome had acted with "cynicism and irresponsibility" by closing its ports to a migrant ship.

"We have nothing to learn about generosity, voluntarism,welcoming, and solidarity from anyone," Italy's interior minister Matteo Salvini, told the Senate.

Mr Salvini, who is also deputy premier and leader of the anti-immigrant League party, called on France to apologise and said he was not prepared to take criticism from a country which regularly stopped migrants on their shared border.

France said it has received no formal request from Italy for an apology, and said it believed a planned meeting between Mr Macron and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in France on Friday would go ahead.

Visiting western France, Mr Macron initially did not respond to questions on the issue but later told reporters: "We must never give in to emotions, which some people manipulate."

The row is centred on the charity ship Aquarius, which both Italy and Malta refused to let dock at their ports.

It is carrying 629 people and is now heading to Spain, which offered safe harbour, escorted by two Italian ships.

France was not alone in its criticism.

The United Nations refugee agency's chief, Italian national Filippo Grandi, said it was "shameful" that two European countries refused to take in vulnerable migrants.

Mr Salvini's League scored its best result in March national elections, partly on pledges to deport hundreds of thousands of migrants and halt the flow of newcomers, and has formed a coalition with the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement.

More than 1.8m people have entered Europe since 2014, and Italy is sheltering more than 170,000 asylum seekers, as well as an estimated 500,000 unregistered migrants.

France takes more conciliatory tone

France has sought to take a more concilitary tone today with foreign ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll saying it is "fully aware of the burden that the migration pressure is placing on Italy" and that it is committed to cooperating with Rome on immigration.

Economy minister Giovanni Tria spoke with his French counterpart after cancelling his meeting, a French finance ministry official said, and both agreed to reschedule their meeting in coming days.

But Italy's foreign minister, Enzo Moavero, kept up the barrage by telling a French envoy that Mr Macron's comments were "unjustifiable" and had compromised bilateral relations.

Mr Salvini told the Senate he was open to a possible "axis" with Germany and Austria on immigration ahead of a key EU summit at the end of this month that will, in part, consider changes to EU asylum law to better share the burden of incoming migrants.

"With my German and Austrian colleagues ... we will propose a new (immigration) initiative," Mr Salvini said, adding that it would apply both to the EU's external borders and to how the bloc's countries manage migrants internally.

After meeting in Berlin, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and German interior minister Horst Seehofer echoed Mr Salvini. Mr Kurz said Europe needed an "axis of the willing in the fight against illegal migration".

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has faced criticism from her own conservative party for her open-doors migrant policy, adopted in 2015, which also fuelled a rise in support for the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Today she said discussions between Italy, Germany and Austria were about finding "a Europe-wide solution ... Therefore I think that there must be many such kinds of cooperation, not just in this one direction".

As politicians have dithered or traded blame, refugees have continued to arrive.

This morning, an Italian coast guard vessel with 937 migrants and two bodies aboard docked in Catania, Sicily, as the Aquarius headed into increasingly rough seas on its way to Valencia, where it is due to arrive on Saturday.

A Dutch-flagged humanitarian ship, the Sea Watch 3, was called by a US Navy vessel to take on board 41 survivors and 12 bodies recovered after a shipwreck yesterday.

However, the Sea Watch is still waiting to pick them after asking for a written guarantee that it will be allowed to dock in an Italian port.