No Plan B for Libya

Evidently there is no point in keeping up the pretence that one can “deal with” the Libyan government as with any other country.

Cartoon by Seb Tanti Burlo'
Cartoon by Seb Tanti Burlo'

As the situation across the southern and eastern Mediterranean continues to deteriorate – chaos and violence in Libya, unrest in Egypt, the Israeli invasion of Gaza, and the ongoing civil war in Syria – one must confront the fact that Malta’s immediate geo-political environment is now officially a war zone on all but one front.

In a sense this has long been apparent. The issue of irregular migration illustrates how even distant wars can extend their repercussions far enough to affect Malta. In recent months there has been a spike of asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean (mostly absorbed by Italy’s Mare Nostrum operation) attributable directly to the situation in Syria and Libya.

With much of Libya now a battleground for rival militias, the repercussions are likely to hit us harder and closer to home. Foreign Minister George Vella recently said that his ministry had the situation under control where expats are concerned. Under such worsening conditions in Libya, this alone has an immediate impact in the immigration scenario.

One can only expect more people to flee from a danger zone, and consequently more attempted boat crossings from Tripoli… and therefore more tragedies of the kind we all saw again this week.

The signs are there for all to see; yet there still is no progress on the impasse at European Union level, whereby Italy has taken on the entire burden single-handedly, because the other member states could not agree among themselves on the need to save lives at sea.

Already, then, Malta has been directly impacted by the ongoing Libyan insurgency. But there is a much more pressing issue: the fact that there are Maltese citizens who live and work in Tripoli and other parts of Libya.

Leaving aside that considerable investments have been made in that country, and now hang in the balance of a conflict that most countries seem to prefer ignoring altogether… the more urgent issue concerns whether the Maltese government has any plans for a full-scale emergency evacuation, should this become necessary; and also what sort of role Malta intends to play on the global stage, if the Libyan situation escalates to become a focal point for international attention (as it did in 2011).

For all this, the government does not seem very keen to discuss the issue at all. The Nationalist opposition has rightly demanded a parliamentary debate to be held with urgency before the summer recess. In fact it is surprising that the Prime Minister himself did not make this suggestion earlier, given that the issue is of immense direct concern to thousands of Maltese citizens, including families. Yet to date there has been no agreement to hold this discussion.

Clearly, the Maltese government is trying to avoid the issue. There is a historical context to this: traditionally, Libya’s close proximity to Malta, and the sizeable Maltese interests in Libya, meant that both Labour and PN governments were always reluctant to ever publicly discuss the sensitive ‘Libya question’.

But the situation has altered radically in the three years since Gaddafi was ousted in a violent and protracted revolution. Malta has since joined the rest of the international community in recognising the first post-Gaddafi Libyan government; but with the country now engulfed in what appears to be a second civil war, the organs of this fledgling state have been paralysed.

Without undermining the legitimacy of the Al-Thani government, in practice it is clearly no longer in full control of the country. This much was clear in the last few days, when 76 Maltese citizens were evacuated from Tripoli, following the closure of the airport, on a private charter flight operated by Medavia.

Evidently there is no point in keeping up the pretence that one can “deal with” the Libyan government as with any other country. Yet the Maltese government seems to be still stuck to an outdated foreign policy which, while it may have served its purpose when there was a government to deal with, is now obsolete.

So far, Foreign Minister George Vella’s few comments to the press seem concerned with minimising the issue altogether.

“The situation is, of course, bad but it is not as dramatic as it is being made out,” he was quoted as saying. “We are prepared for any situation and will take concrete steps if and when necessary.”

Naturally it is understandable that Vella would be keen to avoid creating panic at this stage. But one does not create panic by acknowledging the existence of a problem, and by debating that problem in Parliament. Parliament is also the proper venue to discuss Malta’s role as a key international interlocutor with Libya: a role it last played under Gonzi in 2011.

From this perspective, the opposition can bring considerable experience to the discussion. Given the seriousness of what’s at stake, one can only wonder why a date has not already been set for the debate.

More in Editorial