The JPO statements regarding the impact of Malta’s vast Search and Rescue (SAR) area on Libya’s offshore oil pretensions were dismissed by many as a political swansong. Yet only days later we have had the Pinar incident and the diplomatic stand-off with Italy. Factions of the press also opined that not only Libya but also Italy may have negative views on tiny Malta controlling such a huge search and rescue area. Commentators like Arnold Cassola felt that Italy’s Maroni, hailing from the xenophobic Lega Nord, was acting out of personal political interests but many people in Malta were perturbed by the slant on Italian TV news – and on many different stations. The issue seemed to go beyond Maroni and was co-ordinated at a national level. The very fact that the Malta Government is adamant at retaining its SAR area – contrary to Cassola’s ideas – seem to imply that the opinions expressed by JPO and The Times may have some merit. Closer followers of the Italian scene will, concurrently with the Pinar saga, have seen another attack on Malta by the influential Corriere Della Sera over antique issues such as the Bical case. Again, information presented was cherry picked and observers cannot but feel that not telling the whole truth is tantamount to a lie.
The Malta Government said that this situation was a tiff between friends – a statement that some Italian news media implied as being almost humorous. Closer to home, the evergreen Lino Spiteri called Maroni a bully. The PL, in a return to its core principle of “Malta first and foremost”, supported Government’s actions but Gonzi found reasons to belittle Muscat’s support. Something that is finally apparent is that the EU is totally ineffective in such cases.
After all, the EU is not a federation and there has been strong resistance to the EU approaching a federal structure. The EU has limited powers in this case especially as most of its members have washed their hands of the problems of immigrant flows in the Mediterranean. There may have to be recourse to other fora, including the UN or the IMO. Here the political prowess of tiny Malta versus a relative giant such as Italy becomes important.
Luckily for Malta, Italy’s international image and impact are not that hot. Berlusconi has come under criticism not so much because of his reported – and possibly intended – gaffes. Eyebrows have been raised regarding the Putin-Berlusconi friendship. Several EU states do not seem to be very comfortable with Russia and there seems to be apprehension over the re-emergence of the Russian bear. Italy has not been very effective in supporting Sarkozy’s Mediterranean plans. Italy is a prominent member of the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) Group that seems to be unable or unwilling to do much about economic deficits and that are damaging the European economy as a whole. Before his new found friendship with Putin, Berlusconi was quite chummy with George Bush. Now Bush is history and Obama seems to be intent of dealing from a different deck of cards.
Italy has been very successful at restoring relationships with Libya’s Gaddaffi. From the situation prevalent only a couple of years ago when Gaddaffi decreed that the September First national day was to be a day of mourning in remembrance of the Italian atrocities in Libya, today Italy’s ENI has announced massive expansion plans in the Libyan oil and gas sector and other investments by Italy in Libya – such as the huge Ital-Cementi project – have been reciprocated by Libyan investments in Italy such as the acquisition of 4.6 per cent of Unicredit, Italy’s second largest bank. On April 9, Reuters reported that the Governor of Libya’s Central bank was slated for a seat on Unicredit’s board. If JPO is right, the Italo-Libya accord may have something to do with Italy’s stand over the Pinar.
What about Malta’s own relations with Libya? Historically, this relationship has been a roller coaster one going from high peaks to low troughs under all Governments. In recent months, it appears that Malta decided that it should do something about this relationship and the visit by the then President Fenech Adami was useful, as was appointing a new “Arab friendly” Malta ambassador to Libya. However Malta has been without a Libyan ambassador for months and Libya may have been offended by Simon Busuttil’s actions on Immigration policy formation in the EU. Whatever the situation, Libya is an important trading partner for Malta especially in these recessive times when other markets seem to have dried up.
Libya has its own problems with immigrants. From time to time, Libya does take a stand and arrests several sub-Saharans. Nevertheless, with Gaddaffi heading the African Union, Libya will now find it more difficult to antagonise other African states. Statements by Gaddaffi that illegal immigration is one way of Islamicising Europe (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NjJ_d04aUiE) do not help. Ultimately, Libya is right on one point. It is primarily the historical fault of European countries that much of Africa is in such a mess. Europe is hardly paying more than lip service to improve the situation and it is inevitable that a small percentage of Africans try to run away to where they think the grass is greener. Those of us who have seen the misery, injustice and corruption in sub-Saharan African can understand the despair and even sympathise with those who risk their life and frequently that of their loved ones in a succeed or die attempt.
There is consensus in Malta that we cannot pay for past European misdeeds. Even more, if JPO is even partially right that the SAR area is influential over oil drilling rights, then we should resist any attempts to be robbed by bigger neighbours. Perhaps Malta would do well to have another look at its alliances. Over the past few years, Malta had sold its soul to Europe. However Malta seems to have developed a new relationship with the US with their new mega embassy and honours to the outgoing ambassador. Ensuring that Malta continues to build on this foundation with Obama’s America will be useful. It has become fashionable to decry the Mintoff “sitting on the fence” strategy but it was the only time in our history when Malta the mouse had the roar of a lion. Perhaps today more tact is needed but Malta would do well to look at beefing relationships with old friends and emerging giants – for example, China. The situation with Europe could be better. Even Gűnter Verheugen has expressed his disappointment over the EU’s lack of support for Malta over immigration issues. Recently Malta purchased patrol boats from Australia and a security system from Israel and it does appear that the policy of “exclusively Europe” has now been modified.
Let us not forget that EU accession does not mean that we have relinquished our independence and self determination. Let us not forget that international relationships are an important foundation for trade and business and Malta needs to participate in international trade and business not only to ensure a reasonable standard of living but also for its very survival and security.