Could ‘Rethink Libya’ be a Maltese initiative?

GIUMA ATIGHA • Bringing Libya at speed with the modern regulations that facilitate its competitiveness as a business-friendly nation would potentially unlock an enormous economic return for Malta

Libyans in Malta celebrate the victory of the National Transitional Council in 2011
Libyans in Malta celebrate the victory of the National Transitional Council in 2011

For an average Tripolitanian, Malta, at just 350km away from Tripoli, has always been associated with the common narratives told by generations over a history of joy and pain throughout the colonial times, the waves of independence and nationalism.

In our present-day, Libyan families consider Malta as a safe and welcoming place to live, work and study, especially post the 2011 revolution and its unfolding events to date.

Given its close rapports with modern Libya (since the Kingdom era to date), many of us recollect how Malta played a tremendous role in helping the civilians in times of crisis.

Indeed, no one forgets the dramatic images aired in spring 2011 when two Libyan fighter jets landed at Malta International Airport in defiance of Gaddafi’s orders to bombard Benghazi. That year, Malta was the main hub for medical and food aid to many Libyan cities including Misurata and Tripoli. These are a few examples of how Malta is being largely appreciated by its southern neighbour.

Having said that, it is clear that Malta is on the frontline of the worst humanitarian crisis ever seen in the Mediterranean, the dramatic surge of illegal immigration trafficking to Europe via Libya’s shores and the imminent security risks with the IS threat are clear and present dangers that no viable solution will be permanently effective without re-establishing the Libyan security and defence capacities under a unified government.

Today, with the hopes and prospects of establishing a unity government out of the UN talks with Libyan factions, the Maltese government played an effective role to prioritise the Libyan issue at the top of the EU foreign agenda and build a unified European response in dealing with the humanitarian and security crises there.

But how can Malta leverage its position for a greater influence on the course of events in Libya and the Mediterranean region in general, given its positive influence or “soft power” at both levels?

In my opinion, I believe it is time to consider a main role for Malta in the area of institutional capacity-building in Libya as a cornerstone of the positive influence Malta can play effectively in its southern neighbouring nation. It is essential for any upcoming Unity Government in Tripoli to benefit from the right set of expertise in establishing the required governance and accountability structures in the country after four decades of instability at all levels.

In fact, as the foreign minister, George Vella, said in his speech to an event organised by the Malta Chamber of Commerce (“Doing Business in Libya”, 27 February, 2014), Malta has already started to assist Libya in building up its administrative capacities by providing training for its public sector agencies, institutions and authorities.

Malta is not short of the “right set” of skills and full understanding of the local culture of the various Libyan regions. Its highly-skilled expatriate community there was and still is highly regarded in Tripoli, Misurata and other Libyan cities, especially in the oil sector, hospitality and services for decades. On top of this positive perception, Malta adopts many EU laws and regulations and with its advanced law and tax structures and disciplines; this makes its position a promising proposition for Libya’s capacity building efforts.

What also works best for Malta is the public opinion over the role of certain international players in Libya today, the failure of helping Libyans in rebuilding the defence and security structures, the colonial history of certain powers amongst other issues, which put Malta at a favourable position to enhance its role in post-conflict Libya. 

As Dr Joseph Muscat said in one of his interviews, since the Labour party came to power, the relationship with Libya has become even stronger. During the past two years, the government signed many agreements with the Libyan government in many areas including the oil industry, medical and educational fields and many other areas. In fact, as part of these agreements, many Libyan students come to Malta for specially-tailored courses to meet their specific needs.

As I mentioned above, the relationship between Malta and Libya has become even stronger in the last few years, but much more effort is needed to meet the demands of both countries at many levels.

Hence, I strongly recommend the Maltese decision-maker to adopt a “Rethink Libya” approach to weigh the mutual benefits that would cement the bridges between the two countries; this is a question that I hope to be answered with a well-developed strategy by a “think-tank” group that would consist of a panel of experts from both countries especially in the areas of governance and institutional capacity building.

Notwithstanding that the relationship between Malta and Libya is not for the immediate returns as much as for the long-term benefits and prosperity of both nations, bringing Libya at speed with the modern regulations that facilitate its competitiveness as a business-friendly nation would potentially unlock an enormous economic return for Malta with its position as Europe’s “historical” gate to Libya and vice versa.

This could also be a role model of cooperation towards a stable and prosperous Mediterranean region for generations to come. Thus, let’s “Rethink Libya” and hope for the best!

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