Almost a month ago, Malta’s representatives in the European Parliament joined an overwhelming majority of colleagues in calling for a no-fly zone over Libya. But what few people seem to have noticed is that they also called for the EU to take steps to recognise Libya’s interim transitional national council – the one set up early on in the conflict by opponents of the Gaddafi regime and known unflatteringly in sections of the media as the “rebel” council.

The Parliament’s resolution is non-binding and works simply as a piece of advice. But this has not stopped France and, more recently, Italy, from following through with action.

On the other hand, while upping its criticism of the Gaddafi regime and asking for the Gaddafi family to go, Malta has decided not to rush into recognising the council.

Nationalist MEP Simon Busuttil – who has been particularly vocal about the Libya crisis from the beginning and who voted for the EP’s resolution – believes Malta should follow suit.

Asked whether Malta was making a mistake in postponing recognition, he was laconic but firm: “I have not changed my views. If anything, I feel more strongly about it.”

But other politicians, including shadow foreign minister George Vella, have advised against recognition, arguing the council is largely unknown. He even warned the council could include elements of terrorist organisation Al Qaeda.

Anthropologist Ranier Fsadni offered an alternative viewpoint in a piece published in The Times yesterday. He says the biggest threat to a post-Gaddafi Libya is if the council becomes weaker, collapses, and is replaced by Islamists who tend to be strong on the frontline.

“Perhaps this is why Franco Frattini, Italy’s Foreign Minister, has announced Italy’s recognition of the council,” he wrote, pointing out Mr Frattini’s initial fears of an Islamic state.

On the other hand, Labour MEP Louis Grech says it could be “counterproductive and premature” to recognise the council as the only legitimate Libyan government since the situation has yet to crystallise and other political forces could emerge.

Mr Grech, who also voted for the EP's resolution, said he was against dialogue with the Gaddafi regime "as if it was business as usual", since the status quo in Libya is untenable due to the violence committed

The focus should be to end the bloodshed and democratically ensure a political solution that truly reflects and addresses the concerns and aspirations of the Libyan people.

International affairs analyst Anthony Manduca says the international community should establish strong ties with the council as soon as possible.

But should Malta do this before the entire EU? That’s debateable, he says.

“If Malta could in some way help broker an exit route for (Muammar) Gaddafi, which seems unlikely, then maintaining diplomatic relations with the Gaddafi regime for now might make sense.” However, if Col Gaddafi continues to insist on staying put, then Malta should, together with its EU partners, recognise the council, which, he says, is only a matter of time.

Some have argued that Italy’s proclamation embarrassed Malta because it was given at the same time as the Prime Minister accepted an invitation to meet an official of the Libyan regime, Deputy Foreign Minister Abdel Ati al-Obeidi, last Monday.

During the meeting, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi reiterated Malta’s call for an immediate ceasefire but also said the Gaddafi government must step down and, for the first time, that his family should leave.

A military adviser who asked to remain anonymous has refuted this idea. “We should not compare Italy and Malta.

Leaving aside the geographical differences, the fact is that, unlike Italy, we are not a member of Nato and not directly involved in the military action in Libya.”

“We are in different diplomatic camps,” he added, agreeing it would be prudent for Malta to follow the EU on this rather than taking the lead, particularly because of the uncertainty involved.

In fact, the UK has been reluctant to recognise the rebels and so have many other northern European countries.

“We are dealing with a man who is a survivor. It is becoming increasingly likely that this will end with Gaddafi still in place.” Recognising an alternative government could put Malta in a position “it doesn’t have to be in”.

“To be really, really honest, what we say doesn’t matter. And looking at it only from a narrow perspective, it pays us to keep our heads down,” he said, adding that Malta’s neutrality gave the island a good, but genuine, reason to do so.

History professor Henry Frendo argues that since Nato took over the military operation, the action had slowed to a stalemate. This has discouraged countries like Malta from taking a stronger stand.

“Nato must pull up its socks and target the heavy artillery which is butchering students and soldiers with illegal ammunition,” he says, pointing out that Malta was impotent when it came to Nato because it was a non-member.

So although, idealistically, Malta should recognise the council, the prevailing uncertainty makes it difficult to do so, he says.

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