Malta rattles EU with Irini withdrawal, Macron and Merkel schedule calls

Malta withdrawal from Operation Irini signals support for Turkish-Libyan corridor, unsettling EU leaders

Malta PM Robert Abela with French president Emanuel Macron: a scheduled call did not take place on Saturday
Malta PM Robert Abela with French president Emanuel Macron: a scheduled call did not take place on Saturday

Malta’s prime minister Robert Abela yesterday expected phone-calls from Europe’s two most powerful leaders. 

But the scheduled calls from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emanuel Macron did not take place. It was a day of reckoning inside the European Council: Malta had vetoed EU funds for an important naval operation close to French interests in Libya. 

Operation Irini, the EU naval mission tasked to enforce an arms embargo in Libya, was launched just months ago. But Malta this week announced it will withdraw its participation, with Armed Forces personnel having been the sole boarding team on the operation. The move, a sop to Turkey, which is shipping weapons to the UN-recognised Government of National Accord, is intended at encouraging the GNA to come down hard on human traffickers and stem flows of irregular migration to Malta. 

But the French support the strongman Khalifa Haftar, who is getting his weapons over the Egyptian border, and air support from the United Arab Emirates – something Irini cannot stop. 

News in MaltaToday on Friday of the Maltese withdrawal from Irini prompted a lot of questions inside the EU’s Politico-Military Group, where military reps hold preparatory meetings on defence and security. During the break, Maltese representatives were accosted by their Dutch, Luxembourgish and Italian colleagues who said Malta’s withdrawal had been “the bomb of the day”. 

Then the French counterpart crossed over from the PSC room, with a series of questions directly from Paris. “We want to know the political level at which this decision was taken,” the French colleague enquired. “And what the reasoning behind the decision is…” 

The French stated clearly they were worried Malta would pull out its contribution to personnel, a boarding team that should have been tasked to take on smugglers and other ships carrying weapons into Libya. “They want a letter from the Maltese government,” said one Brussels insider, “so that it is sent to all member states and Josep Borrell, the High Representative, explaining this position.” 

Even Borrell, the EU’s foreign minister, had some words to say to foreign minister Evarist Bartolo over the weekend. “I am disappointed,” he said, apparently finding Malta’s hardball move unexpected. 

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

Not only is Malta rattling the EU. It has been busy courting the Turkish government – a controversial move – because it is the GNA’s main ally and supplier of armaments. 

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. But even Italy, with one of the largest death tolls in Europe and its ports shut, has still taken in migrants rescued at sea to Lampedusa and Sicily. 

Malta instead has chartered private vessels. The government is accused, and is under investigation, 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 government is also refusing to reveal the daily cost of chartering the two boats – reportedly at well over €10,000 a day – and says it will finance the cost through EU funds. 

To curry favour with the Turks, Malta took the unprecedented decision of withdrawing from Operation Irini. 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. 

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. 

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.