Malta gives ultimatum to EU with threat to veto Irini force commander choice

France accepts to take 30 of 162 migrants currently hosted on two Captain Morgan boats on Hurds Bank

Italian Navy Rear Admiral (LH) Ettore Socci at the handover of the EUNAVFOR Sophia command from Italian Navy Vice Admiral Enrico Credendino
Italian Navy Rear Admiral (LH) Ettore Socci at the handover of the EUNAVFOR Sophia command from Italian Navy Vice Admiral Enrico Credendino

Malta will veto the appointment of the EU’s Operation Irini’s new force commander unless other EU countries agree to a burden-sharing plan for migrants currently housed on two Captain Morgan boats on Hurds Bank, MaltaToday has learned.

Operation Irini is a naval mission launched to enforce the arms embargo on Libya in a bid to stifle warring parties in the North African country. It was launched three months ago with its commander being assigned to Italy and Greece every six months alternatively.

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

The only country so far to have pledged support to Malta is France, which has now committed itself to taking 30 of the 162 migrants currently on the Captain Morgan boats.

MaltaToday is informed that unless a response from EU states is forthcoming by Friday, Malta will be vetoing – and therefore blocking – the appointment of Italian Ettore Socci, who was slated to become the force commander of the Irini mission. The force commander is the third most important official in the chain of command.

Admiral Socci, who served in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan as well as in Bosnia, Somalia and the former Yugoslavia, was appointed Force Commander of the EU’s Operation Sophia in June 2019

Malta insists that the first three months of 2020 has seen 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. Initially, the operation will have three vessels contributed by France, Greece and Italy; one Maltese boarding team has since been withdrawn; and three directly assigned patrol aircraft from Germany, Luxembourg and Poland, and the same number of vessels and aircraft in associated support.

Malta wants to keep its ports shut to migrants rescued at sea because of the coronavirus pandemic, however Prime Minister Robert Abela has recently announced a gradual re-opening of establishments.

Malta also complains about the EU’s lack of a migrant relocation framework that shares the responsibility of rescued people at sea among all EU member states.

162 migrants are currently housed on two Captain Morgan pleasure boats on Hurds Bank, outside territorial waters 13 nautical miles off the east coast of Malta.

On 8 May, Malta formally informed the European Commission it would veto decisions on Operation Irini that concern spending procedures for disembarkation of migrants, port diversions, and the eligibility of drones (unmanned aerial vehicles).

Malta said it is facing an “unprecedented crisis” and disproportionate flows as a result of human smuggling and criminal activities in the Central Mediterranean.


An earlier version of this report erroneously referred to the post of commander-in-chief. Malta is threatening to veto the appointment of the force commander, not the commander-in-chief, who has already been appointed.