Malta backs down on Operation Irini veto, abstains on force commander appointment

Malta has not vetoed the appointment of Italian force commander Ettore Socci as force commander of the EUNAVFOR Irini operation

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 has backed down on a threat to veto the appointment of the EU’s Operation Irini’s new force commander.

Instead it abstained on the vote that installed Italian Ettore Socci as force commander of the EUNAVFOR operation.

Malta hoped its threat to veto the appointment would have forced EU countries to 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 has complained that 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.

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Malta has already withdrawn its personnel from the Operation. 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the operation will have three vessels contributed by France, Greece and Italy; one Maltese boarding team has since been withdrawn; and three directly assigned patrol aircraft from Germany, Luxembourg and Poland, and the same number of vessels and aircraft in associated support.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.

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.

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