Updated | Malta should give up its large search and rescue area, Italian minister says

The Maltese government described the statement as 'a baseless and frivolous attempt to try to impinge on the sovereignty of a neighbouring country' • European Commission president tells Maltese Prime Minister that Malta acted in accordance with international rules on Aquarius case

Italian Infrastructure minister Danilo Toninelli
Italian Infrastructure minister Danilo Toninelli

Updated 6:30pm with government statements

Italy’s infrastructure minister has resurrected his country’s ambition to take over the vast search and rescue area for which Malta is responsible in the central Mediterranean.

Danilo Toninelli from the Movimento Cinque Stelle told Italian journalists that Malta received “a lot” of public funds to administer its SAR but this was “patrolled by Italian frigates”.

“If the Maltese are not able to do so, they should change the SAR region and we will take it ourselves, including the public funds that come with it,” Toninelli said.

He was responding to a point raised by an Italian journalist that Malta was too small to take in large groups of migrants such as those rescued by the Aquarius.

It is unclear what funds, Toninelli is talking about but the SAR region is mapped by a flight information region from which Malta receives money from each airplane that passes through it.

Toninelli’s argument is a repeat of the same argument made 10 years ago when Italy and Malta were locked in a dispute like today over who should take in rescued immigrants. It also represents a long-held wish by Italy to take charge of Malta’s SAR, something the country has always rejected.

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

Malta’s SAR extends from Tunisia all the way to Crete, a relic of the country’s colonial past. Maritime international law dictates that the country responsible for the SAR region is obliged to coordinate search and rescue operations.

The obligation does not mean Malta’s military assets have to patrol the vast region and neither does it mean that all people rescued within the SAR have to be taken to the coordinating country.

According to the SOLAS Convention, rescued people have to be taken to the closest, safest port but in 2005 Italy and Spain pushed for an amendment that put the onus of responsibility for disembarkation on the coordinating country.

Malta never ratified the amendment and stuck to the original provisions in the convention, as was its right.

READ ALSO: Muscat tells Italian prime minister Malta will not take in Aquarius

Toninelli's statements have no legal or political basis

In a reaction, the Maltese government said that Toninelli's statement had "no legal or political basis and unfortunately even shows that the minister is either misinformed or wants to stir a useless controversy".

"It must be made clear that Malta fulfils its obligations and abides by all applicable conventions including its obligations within our Search and Rescue Region," the government said. "In the last years Malta has invested millions in upgrading its equipment and has all the necessary means to coordinate all SAR events inside its area."

It added that in the past years, Malta had never ignored a single case inside the Maltese search and rescue region.

"In addition, the Maltese Government does not receive any funds for the control of its SAR area. SAR is a service rendered by the state without any payments. Any funds received were funds related to external border control under EU funds which has nothing to do with SAR. It must also be noted that Italy receives millions from this same fund.

"The Minister’s statements may be interpreted as though this issue has nothing to do with migration but is rather a territorial issue. It is a baseless and frivolous attempt to try to impinge on the sovereignty of a neighbouring country.

Prime Minister in phone conversation with Commission president

A separate statement issued by the government said that Musact and European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker had a telephone conversation on Wednesday evening regarding the developing migration issue.

"President Juncker informed Prime Minister Muscat that according to the Commission’s appraisal, Malta behaved according to international rules in the Aquarius case," read the statement.

"Prime Minister Muscat briefed President Juncker about the bilateral relations with Italy and again expressed his hope that these would be normalised despite the unacceptable statements made by an Italian government minister earlier today."

Muscat and Juncker also discussed the pending Commission proposals on the migration package and the next steps to be taken, the statement said.

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