It can’t be just a mere coincidence

Joseph Muscat is known to have close relations with Matteo Renzi. Italy’s stance towards Malta on migration in the Mediterranean has radically changed. These are facts… This change in stance could be the result of Muscat having made some deal with Renzi concerning Malta’s SAR

Matteo Renzi
Matteo Renzi
Hundreds of migrants were saved by maltese, Italian and US naval vessels
Hundreds of migrants were saved by maltese, Italian and US naval vessels

On August 11, an Italian Navy amphibious transport vessel landed 1,698 persons in Reggio Calabria after they were rescued while attempting to cross the Mediterranean. The day before, an Italian frigate disembarked another 364 in eastern Sicily.

Between January and the end of July this year approximately 93,000 migrants were rescued by the Italian forces running the ‘Mare Nostrum’ initiative – a military and humanitarian operation – and by now the number must be over 100,000. The previous record for migrants arriving by sea in Italy was around 60,000 in 2011.

Obviously, the confusion reigning in Libya and the efficacy of ‘Mare Nostrum’ have contributed to this surge. ‘Mare Nostrum’ was launched last October after 368 African migrants drowned off Lampedusa and the world started noticing what was happening in the Mediterranean.

Has Muscat found a short-term solution to the country’s migration problems while ignoring the possible long-term negative impact on Malta’s position in the centre of the Mediterranean?

The number of migrants that ended up in Malta always reflected what was happening in the area of the sea around us – except this year when the impressive increase of migrants ending up in Italy was ‘complemented’ by the smallest number of migrants ending up in Malta for quite some years – apart from a number of dead bodies that also ended up here.

Not only that. On August 14, Italian media reported that, in response to a distress call from Malta, the Italian Coast Guard had rescued 432 migrants from the Maltese Search and Rescue (SAR) area, with three people being rushed to Lampedusa for urgent medical help.

The difference between what is happening this year and what used to happen before is stark. I do not believe that this is just a mere coincidence.

Let me first go back some years to see what used to happen before.

In April 2009, Italian Home Affairs Minister Roberto Maroni, reacting to Malta’s stand in the case concerning illegal migrants picked by a Turkish ship off the coast of Lampedusa, made a scathing attack on Malta, accusing it of failing to respect international obligations and dumping migrants on Italy.

Maroni, a short-sighted politician from Italy’s half-crazed ‘Lega Nord’, was notorious for his racist views and his plan to toughen Italy’s immigration policy was harshly criticised by many, including Famiglia Cristiana, which alleged it was similar to Italy’s Fascist-era racial laws.

Maroni had already announced that all those arriving in Lampedusa without authorisation would be held on the island and that they would all be repatriated… only to find that this was impossible in practice. He then turned his attention on tiny Malta, claiming that some 40,000 migrants ended up in Italy because Malta did not intervene in some 600 rescue cases, ignoring the fact that Malta has no obligation to pick up every illegal migrant crossing the Mediterranean and passing through its SAR area but was obliged to intervene only when the safety of human beings at sea was threatened.

Maroni kept on at it. In April 2011 he implied that Malta was to blame for the loss of some 200 migrants who were missing at sea off Lampedusa. He told the Italian Chamber of Deputies that the Maltese authorities were alerted to the presence of the boat by the migrants themselves using a satellite phone.

The Maltese authorities then informed Rome that they did not have naval assets for a rescue. He said the boat was in the Maltese SAR area and although Italy did not have the responsibility to conduct the rescue, it felt it should do so for moral reasons.

He went on to lambast Malta again on several Italian TV discussion programmes.

Malta’s position was that while it coordinates rescue efforts within its SAR area, primary responsibility to rescue rested with the vessel closest to the scene, and the migrants must be taken to the nearest port of call. Maroni’s misinterpretation of SAR responsibilities could not have been through ignorance.

Malta’s SAR area is enormous, spanning from below Lampedusa on the West to an area off Greece on the east. Admittedly, it is out of proportion to our size. And this was really Maroni’s gripe. Historically, Malta inherited this area from the former British Empire on becoming independent 50 years ago, just as we also inherited a relatively vast Flight Information Region (FIR) in the airspace above.

Italy always considered this situation as an illogical one and geographically unreasonable, but PN administrations were always adamant not to cede any part of these areas to other sovereign countries. This was made clear when a Labour MP – then in Opposition – had informally mooted that the SAR issue was the source of our immigration problems. The FIR is a source of income through Eurocontrol that collects fees from any civil planes passing through it and – the argument went – if Malta were to cede part of its SAR region to Italy, the same would have to follow in the case of the FIR.

In July 2013, newly elected Labour PM Joseph Muscat scored a lot of brownie points with Maltese racists when he threatened to push back to Libya a number of migrants who had landed in Malta. He later insisted that all he wanted was for Europe ‘to wake up and smell the coffee’ and tried to get some undeserved credit for observing an interim ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (EHCR) prohibiting the deportation of these migrants.

On 22nd February, 2014 Matteo Renzi became Italy’s Prime Minister, retaining Angelino Alfano as Minister of the Interior from the previous cabinet led by Enrico Letta. ‘Mare Nostrum’, in fact, had been launched by Alfano’s ministry under Letta.

Instead of Lawrence Gonzi in Malta and Maroni under Berlusconi in Italy, we now have Joseph Muscat in Malta and Alfano under Renzi in Italy. It is not the migrant problem in the Mediterranean that has changed but the governing administrations of Malta and Italy.

On the other hand, I am sure that the mandarins in the Italian Foreign Office, who had griped about the geographical ‘injustice’ to Italy resulting from Malta’s large SAR, have not changed. They are still there giving the same advice to their new political masters.

Yet, ‘face-offs’ between Malta and Italy on the responsibility for saved migrants have evaporated into thin air. Even so, some sections of the Italian media are still at it. This week the Maltese Armed Forces (AFM) had to deny a report in Italian newspaper Il Giornale, claiming that allegations that the AFM refuelled a migrant vessel and then pointed in the direction of Italy were “completely unfounded.” An AFM spokesman insisted that, “there is a very good relationship between the Rescue Coordination Centres of Malta and Italy which results in thousands of lives being saved.”

Joseph Muscat is known to have close relations with Matteo Renzi. Italy’s stance towards Malta on migration in the Mediterranean has radically changed. These are facts.

Now comes my conspiracy theory: this change in stance could be the result of Muscat having made some deal with Renzi concerning Malta’s SAR. Has Muscat found a short-term solution to the country’s migration problems while ignoring the possible long-term negative impact on Malta’s position in the centre of the Mediterranean?

There must be an answer to this question. This change in stance cannot be discounted as just a mere coincidence.

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