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Dark cloud over Operation Irini. Malta brandishes the threat of a veto

(B2) Barely started, the European operation to control the arms embargo off the coast of Libya is experiencing its first 'tile'. Very political controversy caused by the Valletta government

In the corridors of Maltese power during the Valletta 'gymnich' (© NGV / B2 May 2017)

If the establishment of CSDP operations and missions has always given rise to discussions, discreet but often lively, between Member States, it is very rare for this discussion to occur just a few days after the announcement of their establishment .

Withdrawal of military assets

The Maltese government has officially notified the European Union that it will no longer commit military resources to Operation Irini, according to the daily Malta Today. Valletta will not send the promised military embarked team (VPD). This has a key role: boarding ships suspected of arms trafficking to carry out physical checks.

…and a veto in the Athena committee

Malta has also indicated to the Athena committee – which deliberates on all questions of financing military operations – that it will veto decisions relating to Operation Irini, on expenditure for the disembarkation of migrants and the financing of drones. News that comes just hours before the launch of naval operations (Read: The Jean Bart anti-aircraft frigate deployed in Operation Irini, off the coast of Libya).

A very political measure

For the government of Valletta, this decision responds to very political concerns at the internal level, as well as European.

Valletta aligned with Tripoli policy

Malta has always been very close to Libya. Both geographically and politically, maintaining numerous cultural and economic links (1). She thus supported the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, as she also did during Gaddafi's time. This announcement will therefore not surprise those who follow Libyan politics. It comes a few days after the Tripoli government sent a letter to members of the United Nations Security Council denouncing Operation Irini as partial and partisan (read: Libyan government rejects Operation Irini).

A very clear rapprochement with Turkey

This decision also reflects an evolution of the island, in a rapprochement with Turkey. Malta's rapprochement with Ankara continued last week with the meeting of Maltese Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo with the Turkish ambassador in Valletta. While Maltese Interior Minister Byron Camilleri began informal discussions with Turkish Minister of National Defense Hulusu Akar. Objective : " build serious bridges » with Turkey, as our Maltese colleague indicates.

A mean of pression

This position reflects a particularly sharp break in the European position, whether on Turkey or on a unanimously decided CSDP operation. But it is also explained by the resentment that the island of Malta has at a lack of return of solidarity from Europeans.

A breakdown of solidarity on Turkey

The Europeans have repeatedly condemned the agreement reached by Tripoli both in terms of the supply of weapons and the delimitation of an exclusive economic zone (read: The Europeans condemn the memorandum signed between Libya and Turkey. Illegal! they say).

…on relocation

But the country also suffers from the absence of a framework for relocating migrants. Malta says it is grappling with a “ unprecedented crisis "with flows" disproportionate » arrivals (+438%) due to human trafficking and wants to keep its ports closed to migrants rescued at sea. However, Europeans cannot agree on sharing responsibility for people rescued at sea. Wed. The government declares, according to our Maltese colleague, that there was no “ of tangible support and solidarity from the partners of the European Union” despite numerous requests (for a temporary solution) and discussions on a permanent solution.

…and on aid to Libya

Let us also point out that Malta had sent a request a few days ago to the High Representative of the EU asking him to put in place humanitarian aid towards Libya - and especially the government in Tripoli - and to reactivate the mission EUBAM Libya (responsible for border assistance), redirecting it towards humanitarian aid. A request which was met with a very polite silence, closer to a clear refusal than to the opening of a discussion (read: Humanitarian intervention in Libya requires Malta. A bit far-fetched idea, answers Brussels).

Commentary: the moment of truth draws near

The Europeans will no longer be able to avoid a real debate on Libya and redefining their position more clearly.

An implicit evolution

In recent months there has been an implicit evolution. Despite official statements of support for the government in Tripoli, the Europeans seem to have lost all hope that the government led by Fisent El Sarraj will succeed in stabilizing Libya. His inability to resolve the Libyan crisis, his agreements with Ankara, have convinced the majority of Europeans that the solution would be achieved with General Haftar or not.

A position very close to France

We thus find a very clear French influence. Paris has always had a position on the Libyan question that is more pragmatic than ideological (2). In the translation of the old sporting principle 'may the best win', the spirit of the Quai d'Orsay and the Élysée was that it was necessary to stabilize the Libyan pole at all costs and silence all other principles on this point.

The failure of the Berlin process

The Berlin process, established at the end of January, did not produce the hoped-for effects. The government of Angela Merkel, German Chancellor, intended to take advantage of its apparent 'neutrality' on the subject, unlike its French and Italian counterparts, to impose a new pace on the negotiations, more political and less military.

An indirect boost to Haftar

Paradoxically, Austro-Hungarian opposition to a European maritime operation too conducive to helping migrants (such as Sophia) facilitated this development. Operation Irini (responsible for controlling the arms embargo), further offshore and further east than the former Operation Sophia, will clearly be more effective against arms trafficking to the government in Tripoli (therefore coming from Turkey). It could thus give an indirect helping hand to General Haftar, who has resumed the offensive, in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, to take power.

Greek and Cypriot interests at stake

Several European countries in the area, such as Greece and Cyprus, have also campaigned for this development. Faced with Turkish harassment in its maritime economic zone, in the form of wild drilling in corners supposedly rich in gas (or oil), Nicosia supported by Athens have repeatedly asked for a European presence in their zone (3).

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

  1. Many Maltese people have both 'interests' in Libyabusiness', or even a second home. We must not forget that certain Libyan traffickers have 'support points' on the island.
  2. Under the influence in particular of Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, first at the helm of Defense then, now, of Foreign Affairs... before another position perhaps... 😉
  3. It is not entirely innocent that a ministerial meeting was planned by videoconference between Paris, Athens, Nicosia with the main Arab actors supporting Haftar (Egypt, United Arab Emirates).

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).

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