Updated | Malta vetoes Irini spending after withdrawing from EU naval mission

Maltese government to inform EC it will no longer provide boarding team to Operation Irini, which is attempting to stop Turkish weapons to Libyan GNA

European Commissioner for external affairs, Josep Borrell
European Commissioner for external affairs, Josep Borrell

Malta has formally given notice to the European Commission that will no longer commit any military assets to the EU’s Operation Irini, a naval mission launched to enforce the arms embargo to Libya in a bid to stifle warring parties in the North African country.

The move is a sop to Turkey, which is actively providing weapons to the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) by sea, in the hope that it will lead to the GNA coming down hard on human traffickers sending out migrants on boat through the Central Mediterranean route.

Malta wants to keep its ports shut to migrants rescued at sea because of the coronavirus pandemic. But the country is also suffering from a lack of a migrant relocation framework that shares the responsibility of rescued people at sea among all EU member states.

Malta has now told the Special Athena Committee it will veto decisions on Operation Irini that concern spending procedures for disembarkation of migrants, port diversions, and the eligibility of drones (unmanned aerial vehicles).

Malta told the committee it is facing an “unprecedented crisis” and disproportionate flows as a result of human smuggling and criminal activities in the Central Mediterranean, citing a 438% increase of arrivals in Malta through this route.

The government said there was had been no tangible support and solidarity from EU partners despite many requests for relocation and for discussions on a permanent solution.

The newly launched EUNAVFOR MED Irini disproportionately affects the GNA, whose weapons are mostly supplied by Turkey by sea, because it has little impact on the GNA’s rival, military commander Khalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army receives supplies by air and land across the Libya-Egypt border, as well as from the United Arab Emirates. These are harder to track, and impossible for Irini to intercept.

Malta’s rapprochement with Turkey continued this week with foreign minister Evarist Bartolo meeting the Turkish ambassador in Valletta, while Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri has started informal talks with Turkish national defence minister Hulusu Akar, in a bid to build serious bridges with Turkey and ‘unsettle’ the EU’s big member states.

The first three months have seen a 400% increase in migrant arrivals in the Central Mediterranean but close to nil in the Eastern side of Libya, which is blockaded by EU vessels.

The operation’s commander is assigned to Italy and Greece every six months alternatively. Initially, the operation will have three vessels contributed by France, Greece and Italy, one Maltese boarding team and three directly assigned patrol aircrafts Germany, Luxembourg and Poland, and the same number of vessels and aircraft in associated support.

The Greek government is itself inimical to Turkish military interests, and France supports the strongman ambitions of Khalifa Haftar, making Malta’s move unsettling to the EU.

Irini could indeed fuel more fighting and undermine Europe’s credibility as an honest broker, because the operation stops mainly weapons from Turkey to the GNA and not Haftar’s backers Egypt and the UAE. 

Egypt and the UAE have backed Haftar for many years, and more recently Russia has also provided him with support. 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.

It also means Irini could strengthen Haftar’s relative position. In fact, it could encourage him not to halt the siege of Tripoli or agree to a ceasefire. It also fails to put any pressure on Egypt or the UAE to restrain him at a time when the coronavirus pandemic spreads through Libya. 

Further adding intrigue to the mix is that France supports Haftar because they see the strongman as a guarantee of stability in the region against terrorists. Turkey’s support of the GNA also has meant that Greece and Cyprus are turning towards Haftar, because their ultimate aim is to prevent Turkey from having influence in the Eastern Mediterranean.