Tell you what: give us Lampedusa, and our SAR is yours...

There: see how easy it all is? No need for any stand-offs, diplomatic tiffs, political showdowns and mass-walk outs from Presidential speeches.

Oh, and Pantalleria, too. And maybe even Linosa, Lampione, Favignana, Stromboli and the Aeolian Islands while we’re at it. Because all of a sudden, Professor Godfrey Baldacchino’s recent suggestion – i.e., to ‘solve’ Malta’s territorial limitations, by simply ‘buying’ islands from neighbouring Italy – doesn’t sound like quite the wacky idea we all took it for at the time.... does it now?

For one thing, Italy has only just declared that it already owns far more islands than it can possibly be expected to cope with. Last week, the Italian government even took the extraordinary measure of closing down one of them altogether – Lampedusa – on the grounds that it is no longer a ‘safe port of call’. Yet last I looked, the responsibility to keep one’s own territorial possession ‘safe’ – or at least, ‘safe’ enough to be able to fulfil the most basic international life-saving obligations known to mankind – fell to the government of the country which owns it. So, if Lampedusa is no longer ‘safe’, it is only because the Italian government has manifestly failed to live up to its own civic responsibilities as a sovereign state.

And who can possibly blame it? Even tiny little Malta occasionally struggles to impose ‘full functionality’ on all its territorial possessions – though they add up to barely 320km2. Italy, on the other hand, comprises a mainland stretching all the way into Austria and Switzerland... and on top of Lampedusa and all the aforementioned islands, there’s also Sardinia, Capri, Elba, Vulcano, Ischia, Procida, the Cheradis, Elba, the Maddalena archipelago... why, the Venetian lagoon alone comprises more individual islands than Malta has inhabitants. And, please note: I haven’t even got to Sicily yet... the single largest island in the entire Mediterranean.

How they even keep track of all those island territories – if they even do – I have no idea. But there is another, more pressing reason for Italy to seriously consider ceding sovereignty over, at least a few of them, to Malta. Aside from the fact that... well, we could all use the extra leg-room... Italy has recently made very similar demands on us as a nation. And for almost exactly the same reason, too: Italy’s infrastructure minister Danilo Toninelli has only just argued that Malta receives “a lot” of public funds to administer its oversized Search and Rescue zone... but this was “patrolled by Italian frigates”.

“If the Maltese are not able to [patrol it], they should change the SAR region and we will take it ourselves, including the public funds that come with it,” he added.

Erm... sorry to ask, but is there any particular reason why that argument shouldn’t apply equally well to Lampedusa? After all, as far as I know Malta never ‘closed’ its SAR zone, no matter what difficulties we may have occasionally had in administering it. In other words: our control of the disputed area – limited though it may be – was never lost quite so fully as Italy’s over Lampedusa; though strangely, nobody is talking about stripping Italy of its rights over that particular territory (as Italy proposes for Malta).

All the same, however... to be fair, Toninelli does have a small point. Fact of the matter is that we can’t, in truth, be expected to cope with such an enormous Search and Rescue region: not when countries like Italy – slap bang in the middle of it – consistently refuse to co-operate with our Armed Forces, SAR command centre, government, etc... thus automatically turning any rescue attempt into an instant political stand-off.

But on the other side of the equation... Italy can’t cope with the sheer abundance of its Mediterranean islands either. Meanwhile, they want to take over our responsibilities for Search and Rescue throughout the central Mediterranean (and all the money that goes with it... no prizes for guessing which Toninelli and his mates actually have in mind)... and we, on our part, want more territory to claim as our own; but lack the military power to go out and get it the old-fashioned way.

Hmm. Now: I’m the first to admit I’ve never been much of a businessman myself... but if you ask me – and perhaps you shouldn’t – that is a classic case of: ‘It’s a deal... a steal... the sale of the frigging century!’ Italy’s initial bargaining chip is already there, visible on the table. They want us to relinquish our SAR zone, so they can take it over themselves. All that remains is for us to make a reasonable counter-offer. What would Italy be expected to relinquish in return? What would Malta get, for ceding so much of its territorial rights as a nation?

I say... well, I already said it in the headline. By all means, let Italy take over our SAR Zone, and all the hassle (and money) that goes with it. After all, if they later find that it’s just as difficult to cope with as Lampedusa, they can always refuse to live up to their civic responsibilities in that case as well. Heck, at a stretch, they can even flog it off to yet another unsuspecting country – after all, something that has been sold once, can always be sold again.

We, on our part, would only be too happy to assume territorial possession of Lampedusa in exchange...  along with any other suitable island territories Italy no longer feels like administering. For as they say: ‘fair trade is no robbery’... but the trade in question does have to be ‘fair’.

This brings us to the negotiations part. How do we balance the equities between an SAR zone stretching from Tunisia all the way to Crete... and an island roughly twice the size of Gozo?  Clearly, we cannot go merely on the geographical dimensions of the respective areas. Otherwise, not even all Italy’s national territory, from Pozzallo to Alto Adige, would be enough to balance the scales.

Of course, we could always be as greedy as we usually are in these scenarios, and throw in that as our initial a counter-offer: ‘sure, you go ahead and take our SAR zone... meanwhile, we’ll annex your entire country’. But let’s face it: that would only defeat the entire purpose of the transaction.

My proposal – and I have no doubt that Prof. Baldacchino would fully concur – would be to counterpoise ‘surface area’ with ‘sovereign territorial rights’. Whatever islands we come away with in the bargain will be ours... part of Malta’s national, sovereign territory and legal jurisdiction... while Italy will only get a token form of ‘ownership’ over its newly acquired – albeit enormous – chunk of the Mediterranean Sea.

Still, even by these calculations, tiny Lampedusa, alone, is clearly not going to meet Malta’s expectations of a ‘good deal’. By my estimation, Italy would also have to throw in all the Aegadian, Aeolian, Cyclopeian and Pelagian islands.... pretty much any Italian island south of the Amalfi Coast, in fact... except Sicily, of course. (No offence, but that island is simply too much for any country to administer: Malta least of all. So I say we let them keep it, as a ‘gesture of good will’) ...

Besides, who needs Sicily anyway, if we control all its surrounding islands? If it ever came to open war between our two countries (hey, you never know: it’s happened before) ... we would be able to strategically position all five of our patrol boats to effectively blockade most of southern Italy... while the full might of the Italian Marina Militare would be hopelessly overstretched, in the eternal effort of patrolling and co-ordinating operations across 250,000 km2 of wide open sea.

And the best of part the deal is that... well, that’s exactly what Italy wanted in the first place. And what we secretly want, too. What do you call that, if not a win-win situation all round?

There: see how easy it all is? No need for any stand-offs, diplomatic tiffs, political showdowns and mass-walk outs from Presidential speeches. Countries can all get along just fine, no matter what their differences may be... with nothing more than just a little creative horse-trading here and there.

More in Blogs