[ANALYSIS] Salvini vs Muscat: How the Maltese PM grapples with Gonzi’s pre-2013 problem

JAMES DEBONO analyses what lies behind the latest clash between Malta and Italy over the fate of 629 migrants stranded on the Aquarius and why the situation is likely to escalate in the future

Turning down poor migrants may be a hard sell for a country which sells passports to the global rich
Turning down poor migrants may be a hard sell for a country which sells passports to the global rich

Since 2013 Malta has been spared from boat arrivals thanks to an agreement with centre-left governments led by Enrico Letta, Matteo Renzi and Paolo Gentiloni who accepted to take responsibility for all migrants rescued in Malta’s “search and rescue area”.

But following elections in spring a new government was formed between the anti-immigrant Lega and the anti-establishment 5 Star Movement.

One of the casualties of this political earthquake was the informal agreement, which stopped boat arrivals to Malta.

Basically the situation reverted to that before 2013.

Underlying the dispute between Malta and Italy was the latter’s insistence that Malta should take in all immigrants rescued in its oversized search and rescue area: at some 250,000 square kilometres, roughly the size of Great Britain, spanning from Tunisia to Greece. Malta has always insisted that rescued migrants should be taken to the closest safe port of call, which in many cases would be Lampedusa, even if the migrants had been saved in Malta’s SAR.

This means that in the absence of an agreement resolving this long-standing dispute, Malta and Italy are destined to remain at loggerheads.

This is because Lampedusa will always remain the nearest ‘port of call’ for immigrants rescued by ships run by NGOs like Medicines Sans Frontier (Doctors without borders) operating on the edge of Libya’s search and rescue zone.

In the absence of these NGO ships, it is also very likely that tragedies like the 2015 tragedy which saw 700 migrants drowning just outside Libyan waters, could recur.

The only difference between now and the pre-2013 days is that the Lega is even stronger, no longer subjugated to Silvio Berlusoni, who had a moderating influence on the Lega’s former Home Affairs Minister Roberto Maroni,

It was only after a four-day standoff and a telephone conversation between Gonzi and Silvio Berlusconi, that Italy’s Justice Minister Roberto Maroni gave in to accept 140 migrants stranded on the high seas on the Turkish cargo ship Pinar E, into Lampedusa in April 2009.

A second major standoff took place in April 2011 when a boat of 171 immigrants was rescued by the AFM near Lampedusa. The Italian authorities refused entry, forcing the Maltese vessel to bring the migrants into Malta. Joseph Muscat actually praised Italy for defending its national interest by blocking the boat’s entry.

Ironically, back in 2013 Muscat’s refusal to accept a tanker (The Salamis) carrying 102 migrants rescued at sea in the Libyan search and rescue region, was praised in the Lega’s newspaper La Padania, which carried a headline on its front page which read: “C’e’ chi dice no” (Some say no).

In situations where each country seeks to defend its own ‘national interest’ there is little room for ‘burden sharing.’
In situations where each country seeks to defend its own ‘national interest’ there is little room for ‘burden sharing.’

Why is a European solution unlikely?

Malta and Italy are traditionally strong advocates of reforming the EU’s migration policies. In his first speech in office, Italy’s new Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, called for the “obligatory” and “automatic” redistribution among EU member states of asylum seekers being processed in Italy. Current rules put the ‘burden’ on those receiving the influx. Therefore, one possible solution to the current impasse is that of Italy and Malta making a common front in Europe.

Yet Salvini himself may realise that the right-wing tide of which he is one of the main representatives will make burden sharing between European partners even more unlikely.

For it is extremely unlikely that right-wing populists in Hungary and Austria will accept migrants rescued by Italy and Malta.   

For how can Salvini expect fellow far rightists to accept migrants rescued in the central Mediterranean when they had blocked their borders to Syrian refugees coming from the Balkans?

In situations where each country seeks to defend its own ‘national interest’ there is little room for ‘burden sharing.’

So, ultimately, Salvini may well prefer a situation where more countries emulate him by closing their borders than forcing like-minded governments to take a fair share of migrants from the Mediterranean.   

Moreover, for Salvini legal bickering with Malta may well be a convenient way of stopping migration without looking inhumane, even if expecting a small island to cover all the border may also look unrealistic.

However, Salvini does not govern alone and his actions may alienate him from his partners in government; the Five Star Movement, that are less hawkish on migration.

Muscat’s poisoned chalice

Joseph Muscat may well have done what was expected of him in such a difficult circumstance by standing his ground against Salvini.

It was also understandable that in his first face-off with Salvini, Muscat could not afford to nudge, as this would have set a precedent for the future.

Still, had Pedro Sanchez not saved the day, Muscat might well have ended up in a very messy situation. Had the situation dragged on by a few more days, Muscat might well have ended up having to choose between upholding an abstract legal principle and saving 629 human lives.

Moreover, Muscat is no longer the politician who advocated pushbacks in 2013. He cannot convincingly argue that Malta cannot sustain the influx of a immigrants rescued on the high seas when its economy has absorbed 40,000 foreigners in the past three years.

After all, turning down poor migrants may be a hard sell for a country which sells passports to the global rich.

Sure enough, there is a marked difference between the logistics involved in disembarking asylum seekers rescued in the high seas and accepting foreign workers and property buyers who arrive here through legal channels. One notable difference is the pressure on the army and reception centres where migrants have to be initially kept. Still in the battle of perceptions, it is harder for Muscat to project Malta as a poor victim pushed to the brink by Europe’s insensitiveness to the migration issue.

Muscat may balance growing concern on the influx of foreigners by standing his ground with Italy. This may boost his popularity ahead of next year’s MEP elections, in which illegal migration will likely feature as a main issue.

It is no wonder that Opposition leader Adrian Delia was not just supportive of Malta’s position but added “Malta should hold strong and firm”.

Delia was probably in synch with the popular mood when he avoided bickering with the PM during a sensitive moment.

But his complete disregard for the humanitarian aspect of the standoff in his first tweet on the issue did not go down well with those in his party who are keener on humanitarian considerations. MEP Roberta Metsola emphasised the fate of the 629 migrants left in limbo due to the “sad battle” between Muscat and Salvini, which she depicted as “two populists.”

It was only when speaking in parliament after news that Spain had intervened to accept the 629 migrants that Delia referred to the importance of saving lives “within the observance of international laws”.

Ultimately it was another Prime Minister, the newly-appointed Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who mustered the courage to take away the poisoned chalice away from Muscat.

Sanchez may well have used this incident to leave a mark on the international stage, two weeks after he deposed Mariano Rajoy in a parliamentary vote of confidence. It also came at a cheap price for Sanchez whose main immigration worries come from Spain’s north African enclaves in Mellila and Ceuta.

The risk taken by Sanchez is that his action may well embolden Salvini.

Salvini was very quick in declaring ‘victory’ after Spain intervened to take responsibility for the 629 migrants on board of the Aquarius.

The risk for Salvini is that had Spain not intervened, he might well have ended up being held responsible for the deteriorating situation on the Aquarius.

But it is doubtful whether Salvini cares about the repercussions as long as his popularity at home continues to grow.

The question now is: will every rescue result in a standoff with Malta and the intervention of a third party like Spain to take away the heat? Probably something will have to give. The alternative scenario is even more frightening: that of hundreds dying on the high seas as Europe looks the other way.

More in National