Will Malta’s Ottoman whip work? Risky gamble could burn EU bridges

Malta could be on a collision course with European interests who dislike small EU member states upending their foreign policy plans in Libya. In a risky gamble, Malta is courting Turkey to pressure the Libyan GNA on controlling migratory flows, but it is doing so at the cost of burning bridges inside the EU?

GNA president Fayez el Serrraj with Turkish president Reccep Tayyip Erdogan. Malta hopes that by currying favour with the Turks, it can put more pressure on the GNA to stop the operations of human traffickers on Libyan shores. But by withdrawing from Irini, does it risk irritating its EU allies?
GNA president Fayez el Serrraj with Turkish president Reccep Tayyip Erdogan. Malta hopes that by currying favour with the Turks, it can put more pressure on the GNA to stop the operations of human traffickers on Libyan shores. But by withdrawing from Irini, does it risk irritating its EU allies?

Malta’s withdrawal from the EU operation Irini last week indeed attracted some form of retaliation. To political observers in the Brussels bubble, it came with the report in the authoritative Le Monde claiming the Maltese embassy in Brussels was suspected sometime in 2014 of housing apparatus used for Chinese espionage. The claims were debunked by past and present Permanent Representatives who said Dar Malta in Brussels had been de-bugged by the Malta Security Services and audited several times.

Still, this soupçon of intrigue was greeted with a wry smile by Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative, during a press conference on Friday. He gave the press report scant importance, perhaps knowing all too well the way the world works when small nations like Malta upset the apple-cart.

Malta’s decision to withdraw Irini’s sole boarding team and even veto spending for the mission naturally upset various political interests, most notably the French, backers of General Khalifa Haftar in the east; as well as the Greeks, co-commanders of Irini, who are wary of Turkish warships and other vessels passing through the Eastern Mediterranean en route to Libya.

But Malta hopes that by currying favour with Turkey, it can bring about pressure on both the Libyan GNA to come down on people smugglers sending migrants out on the Central Mediterranean route; as well as on the European Commission.

Yet, will this kind of double-strategy and brinkmanship pay for Malta?

Security experts who spoke to MaltaToday on condition of anonymity think the strategy is a mistake, for Malta’s foot-stamping “fundamentally misunderstands how to build solidarity and coalitions in the EU”.

Friends and enemies: left General Khalifa Haftar meets Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Russia claims it is not controlling the Russian mercenaries backing Haftar’s Libyan National Army in the East. After refusing a ceasefire, Russia’s patience with its belligerent friend might also run out.
Friends and enemies: left General Khalifa Haftar meets Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Russia claims it is not controlling the Russian mercenaries backing Haftar’s Libyan National Army in the East. After refusing a ceasefire, Russia’s patience with its belligerent friend might also run out.

If Malta moves too close to Turkey, it risks alienating Greece and Cyprus, which are states whose voices are needed inside the Council of Ministers on achieving a lasting migration solution. Greece, a co-commander of the EUNAVFOR operation, is vocal about the fact that the GNA expanded Turkey’s maritime Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) into Libya, given that Crete sits between Turkey and Libya’s EEZs.

Secondly, there is the problematic nature of Turkey itself, which ‘weaponised’ migratory flows from Syria against Europe. Could it do the same with the GNA’s own militias, legitimising Turkey’s role as a controller of migration flows just as Muammar Gaddafi once was?

Inside the EU, the mood could turn against Malta if it burns its bridges with member states who start seeing Malta as an obstacle to security policy in the Mediterranean.

Peter Agius, a Nationalist Party candidate for Europe, and an expert of EU affairs working in Brussels, thinks Malta’s withdrawal from Irini has been rash.

“Malta’s reservations on Irini’s shortcomings to stop arms trafficking from eastern Libya are shared by many, and yet, its reported vetoing of Irini in its first month of operation is perceived as rash, premature and based on the wrong precept of retorting to the lack of EU management on migration.

“In my view, by nipping Irini in the bud the government would also be putting to prejudice our own interest of seeing to Irini’s potential success in stemming irregular migration to our shores by breaking human smuggling networks in Libya,” Agius says.

He points out that Irini is subject to the government’s own scrutiny and renewal every four months within the political and security committee in Brussels. “That forum would have been more appropriate than a newspaper leak to ask Irini’s operational command to render account and address deficiencies… one can understand government’s motives in this matter but I believe its actions to be ill-judged in form and timing.”

Despite the inherent danger of curling up by the feet of the Turks, this game is hardly new. Dom Mintoff, the socialist patriarch of the Labour Party, employed it, somewhat more forcefully, with his overtures to Libya’s Gaddafi in the 1970s in a bid to force concessions from Western states seeking to retain on influence on Malta.

But the Libyan story has been generously replete with hypocrisy and divergent views on its future government. On one side, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, France and now Russia support Khalifa Haftar; on the other, Qatar, Italy and Turkey support the GNA, which was created in a 2015 United Nations-sponsored political deal – even Malta supports the GNA. The Muscat administration’s former unofficial envoy Neville Gafà, who levied his influence with the GNA and its forces to stem migratory flows to Malta, is an overt ‘tweeter’ of posts in favour of Turkey and the GNA.

With Russian mercenaries shoring up Haftar’s offensive, and Turkey planning to send in its troops in support of the GNA, Europe can no longer ignore Libya. But clearly, there are European disagreements on the Libyan theatre.

Malta is well aware of the divisions between France and Italy, but also that the EU’s High Representative Josep Borrell is increasingly wary of the dangers of Turkish military involvement in Libya. Malta also knows that Italy and energy giant ENI need stability in Libya to be able access gas in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Haftar holds sway. The same holds true for France, which thinks stability will come quicker in Libya through a strongman like Haftar. The big question is: which greater power benefits from stability in Libya (and on whose terms…)? What if peace in Libya opens up opportunities for heavy Russian investment in oil and gas? What will the EU do with Russia sitting on a new pipeline in North Africa?

Despite a Russian-Turkish sponsored ceasefire in Moscow, Haftar has refused to rein in his offensive on Tripoli. And that’s something that Russia has taken note of, with foreign minister Seregy Lavrov voicing discontent with Haftar’s statement to “single-handedly decide how the Libyan people will live”. Again, oil interests abound here. At some point, Haftar’s protraction of the Libyan conflict will start hurting the influential business circles that want Libyan oil re-turned to the market.

Moscow claims it does not back the Russian mercenaries supporting the LNA, which means the degree to which it actually controls them is key to the kind of influence it retains in Libya. Withdrawing them could force pressure on Haftar; deploying them will keep Turkey’s ambitions at bay. In either case, Russia is a player in Libya.

And Turkey itself is attempting a “neo Ottoman” strategy of expansionism that puts it at odds with most of its NATO partners – in Libya it wants to cultivate its own sphere of influence through the Muslim Brotherhood. Malta should be wary of Turkey’s interests in Libya too: is it stability that Recep Erdogan wants, or Islamist influence inside the government?

This alone illustrates the perils of Malta forging its own path with Turkey and the GNA for the sole end of controlling migratory flows.

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