Malta’s migration diplomacy: from hobnobbing with Macron to flirting with Meloni?

Malta joined Italy, Cyprus and Greece in a statement lamenting the lack of a mandatory solidarity mechanism for the relocation of migrants, lashing out at rescue-NGOs. Overshadowing this diplomatic initiative, are escalating tensions between Italy and France. What does Malta stand to gain by allying itself with an Italian far-right government, which is still on probation, in a stand-off with France?

Still on probation... Italian PM Giorgia Meloni goes to Brussels
Still on probation... Italian PM Giorgia Meloni goes to Brussels

The statement signed by Malta alongside Italy, Greece and Cyprus vaguely backs the Italian position that countries flagging rescue charity ships should take responsibility for rescued migrants, stating that “all flag states (should) take responsibility in accordance with their international obligations.”

The statement does not explicitly refer to the Italian refusal to accept 234 migrants left stranded at sea for three weeks, on flimsy legal grounds challenged by the European Commission, but suggests that Malta, Greece and Cyprus are supporting Italy against France.

Just days before the statement, the European Commission had insisted on the “immediate disembarkation, at the nearest place of safety, of all persons rescued and who are on board the Ocean Viking,” while Italy insisted on these being sent to Norway – 2,000km north of Rome.  Ultimately France accepted to take the migrants in, but only after cancelling its commitment to take 3,500 immigrants which had been previously rescued by Italy.

But Malta’s support for the Italian position, suggests a change in its diplomatic response to problems created by the Italian far right.

Seeking a friend in France

Faced with the election of a populist government which took over in Italy in 2018 in which the far-right’s Matteo Salvini called the shots on migration, Malta found itself on the receiving end of disputes in which Italy often insisted that Malta was the “nearest port of call” for migrants rescued on the high seas.

Italy’s right-wing coalition leaders Giorgia Meloni, Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini
Italy’s right-wing coalition leaders Giorgia Meloni, Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini

In this context, Malta had aligned itself with France promoting voluntary pacts between member states who were willing to share responsibility for rescued migrants, in the absence of any long-term mandatory solution obstructed by the Visegrad nations led by Viktor Orban’s Hungary, dead set against any obligation to take any migrants from Africa and the Middle East.

This alignment also coincided with Joseph Muscat’s personal European ambitions at a time when he was still touted for a top EU post, just months before his disgraceful exit in December 2019. Fully knowing that his ambitions hinged on his international standing, Muscat abandoned his earlier advocacy of pushbacks, and basked in the company of French President Emmanuel Macron, who projected himself as the leader of the liberal camp of ‘open societies’ against a resurgent hard-right.    

This saw Malta taking migrants rescued by NGOs on condition that these are split between EU member states in ad hoc coalitions of willing nations which included Spain, France, Ireland and Scandinavian countries.

Emmanuel Macron and Joseph Muscat enjoyed a very strong personal relationship and a regular dialogue
Emmanuel Macron and Joseph Muscat enjoyed a very strong personal relationship and a regular dialogue

Still even back then, Muscat shared Salvini’s misgivings on NGOs, with his government impounding a Seawatch vessel in 2018 amidst reports that Malta was cooperating with the Libyan coast card in unofficial pushbacks. Lashing out at rescue NGOs may well have been part of a balancing act in a bid to appease Labour’s own anti-immigrant voters. Since his election as Labour leader, Abela has gone even further in appeasing these voters, repeatedly insisting that Malta is ‘full up’.

The end of the Franco-Italian entente?

But following the appointment of a technocratic government led by Mario Draghi, tensions between Italy and the EU over migration were defused as the new PM banked on aligning Italian foreign and economic policy with France in a bid to create a southern European alliance to strengthen the economic and political clout of his country in the context of uncertainties caused by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

In short, under Draghi, common economic and political interests eclipsed migration concerns. This diplomatic approach did pay off in the shape of a voluntary solidarity mechanism approved in June, aimed at easing the pressure on front-line countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain in the absence of a still elusive mandatory migration pact. This went some way to enshrining previous ad hoc agreements forged in response to crisis situation but fell short of the relocation model which was so effective in addressing the refugee crisis created by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Malta PM Robert Abela with French president Emmanuel Macron
Malta PM Robert Abela with French president Emmanuel Macron

Yet this may well have come at a political cost. For immigration concerns pumped up by misinformation galvanised the Italian far right in its electoral victory in September.

Faced now by the election of Giorgia Meloni as Italy’s most right-wing prime minister since the Second World War, Malta understandably seems bent on finding common ground rather than clashing with its northern neighbour.

In their statement Saturday, Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus once again insisted that they “cannot subscribe to the notion that countries of first entry are the only possible European landing spots for illegal immigrants.” They added that the number of migrants taken in by other EU member states “only represents a very small fraction of the actual number of irregular arrivals.”

From the Maltese perspective such an approach suggests an understanding with the Italian far-right government, providing it with diplomatic support to avert the bickering over boats which characterised relations between the two countries both under the Berlusconi-led government between 2008 and 2011 and the populist coalition between 2018 and 2019.   

But does this represent the emergence of a new block of assertive Mediterranean nations pushing their agenda as the Visegrad group in Eastern Europe did in blocking mandatory migration pacts? Ironically the common stance of the four Mediterranean countries comes in a context of a split between right-wing governments in Poland and Hungary, over the response to the war in Ukraine. And it also comes at a time when Eastern European countries alongside Germany have taken the largest portion of Ukranian refugees, with Poland alone taking 1.4 million refugees and Germany taking nearly 1 million.

From Med 5 to Med 4?

In reality the statement itself suggests that the Mediterranean group is now numerically weaker than it was a few months ago. For while the statement refers to the MED 5 (Malta, Italy, Spain, Cyprus and Greece) insisting on a mandatory relocation scheme for rescued migrants, the latest statement was not signed by Spain and was overshadowed by the clash with France over migrants rescued by NGOs.

Spain’s absence suggests apprehensions in Madrid over Meloni’s open support for the Spanish right-wing Vox party. It also suggests that given a choice between France and Italy, Spain remains closer to its northern neighbour.

So Malta ended up teaming with Italy whose far-right government is still under probation in its bid to gain international respectability and with Greece and Cyprus, two countries with limited economic and political clout whose handling of migrant arrivals have often raised major human rights concerns.

And while Spain’s actions in its colonial enclave in Mellila have also raised humanitarian concerns, the absence of socialist-led Spain from the latest statement, deprives it of the legitimacy it needs. In fact, Malta is the only signatory among the four nations which is led by a centre-left government. It is hard to imagine a strong and assertive Mediterranean grouping in the EU which does not include France and Spain.

Moreover, the statement’s primary motivation goes beyond support for a mandatory mechanism and revolves on an insistence that countries issuing their flag to NGO vessels should be held responsible for migrants rescued on the high seas.

Apart from doubts on the legality of such of a stance, the statement ignores the reality that NGOs have simply filled in a vacuum created by the absence of a European rescue mission after Italy shelved its Mare Nostrum mission in 2014. It was subsequent tragedies and loss of life amongst migrants crossing the Mediterranean which spurred charity boats to take action to save lives amidst what Pope Francis had described as “a globalisation of indifference”.

Meloni flexes her muscles

Significantly, the statement by the four Mediterranean nations is overshadowed by an escalation in tension between France and Italy. Tensions between the two have escalated since Italy’s new government barred the Ocean Viking ship, operated by a French NGO and carrying a Norwegian flag – and with 230 migrants on board – from docking. The ship had initially sought access to Italy’s coast, which is closest to where the migrants were picked up, saying health and sanitary conditions onboard were rapidly worsening. France denounced Rome’s “unacceptable behaviour” but Italy insisted it has been taking in its share of migrants and called for EU solidarity.

In retaliation, France, which ultimately allowed the ship to dock in view of humanitarian concerns, suspended a plan to take in 3,500 asylum seekers currently in Italy, thus erasing the progress registered in June.

Moreover, Italian belligerence is also viewed with suspicion, being seen as an act of destabilisation meant at boosting Le Pen’s far right and weaken Macron who lost his parliamentary majority in legislative elections in June. In short, Italy’s actions can only reinforce the traditional Franco-German leadership of the EU, with the German Foreign Ministry supporting the French stance.

So far, the stand-off offered the new Italian government with the opportunity of flexing its muscles and thus appease the far rights’ electorate and thus compensate for Meloni’s continuity with the Draghi agenda on the economy and foreign policy.

Yet by using migrants stranded at sea as political pawns the Italian government is endangering its bid to gain legitimacy in European political corridors, amidst concern in Brussels on Meloni’s roots in the Italian far right.  In her quest for legitimacy, Meloni is aware she is walking on a tight rope in a balancing act between her two deputy PMs; the hawkish Matteo Salvini and the more moderate Antonio Tajani.

Unlike Salvini, Meloni has been careful to frame her migration policy in an appeal to “European solidarity”, thus deviating from the far-right’s xenophobic instincts. But while finding common cause with Italy, Malta might be spared from the bullying tactics Salvini used against it in the past, but could also be dragged in a game motivated by Meloni’s political manoeuvring aimed at keeping her coalition intact.      

Fortress Europe?

Italy’s clout in Europe is now set to be tested in an extraordinary meeting of EU home affairs ministers to discuss the crisis and consider next steps in the action plan. Yet the same two major stumbling blocks for a durable migration pact remain. These are the reluctances of some member states, to accept mandatory mechanisms for refugee relocations, and conflicting views on how to reduce or stop departures from North Africa without trampling on asylum rights and relapsing into a ‘Fortress Europe’.

While many suspect that this is the ultimate goal of both hard-right governments and centrist governments fearing populist electoral gains, none of the solutions proposed in the past decades like processing asylum claims in human rights hell-holes like Libya have made any progress; while gains by the far-right make progressive solutions like creating legal channels for asylum seekers, hard to even propose let alone implement.

In fact, Meloni herself was elected on a platform which included a unlikely naval blockade of Libya to stop departures. Even Malta’s Robert Abela insists that the long-term solution is stopping departures, even if he is vague on how this goal can be achieved without stopping people who deserve protection leaving the hell-holes in which they live.

Discussions on both curtailing departures and mandatory relocation have been ongoing for decades and a solution carrying a consensus in the EU remains elusive, but failure to reach an agreement risk undermining the sense of European solidarity galvanised by the continent’s response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.