EU foreign minister plays down Malta deal on Irini withdrawal

Josep Borrell claims Libya needs political stability to stop migratory wave, which Operation Irini set out to ensure. But critics see naval mission as dead-legging GNA efforts to stop Khalifa Haftar

EU High Representative Josep Borrell
EU High Representative Josep Borrell

The EU’s foreign minister Josep Borrell has played down a deal that could have been hammered out with Malta to unblock its veto on a budget to fund Operation Irini, the EU’s mission to enforce the Libyan arms embargo.

Taking questions during a press conference following a European Council meeting of defence ministers, Borrell said he had spoken to foreign minister Evarist Bartolo on Malta’s withdrawal of its personnel from Irini.

Malta withdrew from the EU naval mission as it started to curry favour with Turkey, an ally of the Libyan GNA - the United Nations recognised government - to whom it provides weapons by sea. Malta hopes this will lead to pressure on the GNA and militias that are controlling the flow of trafficked human and asylum seekers through the Central Mediterranean route.

“It is not a deal to be done with Malta,” Borrell said in reply to a question on the alleged understanding reached with the government. “I understand Malta’s concerns because they are facing a strong push of migrants from Libya. I understand perfectly. And I am trying to mobilise our capacities from the home affairs commissioner and member states, to be involved, to try help Malta face this situation.”

But Borrell claimed stopping Irini, a mission now being accused of impeding Turkish weapons to the GNA to the benefit of rival and strongman Khalifa Haftar, was not the solution.

“The Irini operation was conceived to stop the fighting in Libya and political stabilisation is a precondition to stop the migrant wave. So to stop the migration push, we need to politically stabilise Libya, and this depends on [Irini],” Borell said.

Malta provided the sole boarding team for the naval mission until it announced its withdrawal last week.

Borrell insisted that Operation Irini was “almost operating” with French naval and Luxembourgish aerial assets already out, but that spending had been vetoed by Malta. “I hope Malta’s objection will be lifted in the next days,” Borrell said.

Borrell acknowledged the increased rate of fighting in Libya, pointing his finger not just at Turkey but at all foreign powers intervening in the Libyan conflict.

Malta’s veto of EU funds for the important naval operation also strikes at French interests in Libya, which support Haftar, who is getting his weapons over the Egyptian border, and air support from the United Arab Emirates – something Irini cannot stop. 

MaltaToday last week reported that French counterparts in the EU’s Politico-Military Group, where military reps hold preparatory meetings on defence and security, wanted to know what Malta’s reasoning behind the Irini withdrawal was.

Malta’s Prime Minister Robert Abela has told aides he will not budge on his hardline position, determined to make Brussels sit and up and take notice. 

Malta has complained to the European Commission that it is failing to hammer out a common solution for the rescue and relocation of migrants at sea. The government claims it cannot take in asylum seekers due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Not it stands accused, and is under investigation in a magisterial inquiry, of having pushed back one group of migrants to Libya; it has now chartered two boats from the Captain Morgan pleasure cruise company to hold migrants outside its territorial waters, at Hurd’s Bank, denying them the right to claim international protection in Malta.

The newly launched EUNAVFOR MED Irini’s command is assigned to Italy and Greece every six months alternatively.

Turkey only recently began backing the GNA with military assistance in exchange for a controversial maritime agreement that divides up much of the Eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and Libya. And this has angered Greece, which is logistically running Operation Irini, because it cuts into its Exclusive Economic Zone around Crete. 

But Irini could strengthen Haftar’s relative position, because it fails to put any pressure on Egypt or the UAE to restrain him at a time when the coronavirus pandemic spreads through Libya.