Foreign Minister Tonio Borg is optimistic about the direction of the new Libyan government as well as Malta’s relations with the new Libya.
In fact Mahmoud Jibril, head of the Libyan Transitional National Council’s executive board, intends to visit Malta at the earliest possible moment “in recognition of Malta’s role in the Libyan crisis”, Dr Borg tells The Times.
“All the indications are that Libya will be a democracy and it is obviously easier to deal with a democratic government than with an enigmatic and totalitarian regime,” he says with reference to the ousted Gaddafi regime.
In Gaddafi’s Libya there was no chain of command, not even a structure of a government. “You could actually strike a deal at one level of government only to have it blocked at another level of government. This was the main obstacle in our relationship with Libya under Gaddafi. This does not mean that because Libya is becoming democratic all outstanding issues between Malta and Libya will be solved overnight. Pending issues will be dealt with in a normal way,” he says.
Dr Borg says people in Malta are already talking about oil exploration “which of course we will discuss with the new Libyan government” but Malta’s immediate priority is to see how it can help Libya transform itself.
The Foreign Minister believes the Transitional National Council contains the right elements to bring about the change needed in Libya.
“I met Mustafa Mohammed Abdul Jalil, the chairman of the Transitional National Council, in Benghazi in July as well as other TNC ministers and they could be ministers in any other democratic country. Mr Jalil’s message is no revenge, justice for all and everybody should be subjected to a fair trial. There will be no witch hunts and he made it clear that Libya will certainly never forget those who helped it in time of need.”
Dr Borg says both Mr Jalil and Dr Jibril were grateful for Malta’s help in this conflict, especially its humanitarian assistance, and appreciated the fact that Malta was the fourth EU country to officially recognise the TNC.
The fact that the United Nations has unblocked $1.5 billion in frozen Libyan assets paves the way for Malta to unfreeze its Libyan assets “although these issues are legally complex”.
“These things have to take place within an international context, and there are both EU sanctions and UN sanctions. In Malta we have frozen assets that belong to the Gaddafi family – the AG has to decide whether they are privately or state-owned – and the Libyan government,” he points out.
Does he think Malta and the international community were caught off guard by the rapid demise of the Gaddafi regime?
“No I don’t think so. Of course there were those who were braver than others. Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi said way back in March that the end of the Gaddafi regime was inevitable and he was even criticised in Parliament for this. Dr Gonzi has been proved right.”
He says: “My conviction that things would change started when Moussa Kussa, who was so close to Gaddafi, defected. From then on it was really the beginning of the end. The EU approved four sets of sanctions against Libya, and the UN approved sanctions against Libya at record speed, followed by the military action which helped bring about the downfall of the regime.”
Dr Borg says he had reliable information last month that the final push towards Tripoli would take place during Ramadan in August, which he passed on to certain ambassadors.
He defends the initial cautious response to the uprising in Libya where both he and Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini had said it was important for Libya’s territorial integrity to be respected.
“Yes, that was the right thing to do. Malta and Italy are geographically the closest EU states to Libya, and in Italy’s case there were historical considerations. As Giulio Andreotti once said, no one chooses his neighbours; just look at Finland’s relations with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.”
He also says he has no regrets about engaging with Gaddafi’s Libya “which after all was done to further our interests” in areas such as the fishing zone, oil exploration and the 5 + 5 Mediterranean Dialogue. It was always in Malta’s interest, he points out, to increase its commercial relationship with Libya.
Dr Borg says during the Libyan conflict Malta had links with Nato and it provided the alliance with assistance whenever necessary.
“Our Constitution allows Malta to take part in military operations authorised by the United Nations Security Council. Although we felt it was not in our national interest for Malta to be used as a military base we assisted Nato, which was the right thing to do, in allowing aircraft to land here, in the exchange of information and allowing military operations from Malta for humanitarian purposes such as the British rescue of UK, Maltese and other nationals from an oil rig in the desert.”
In February Dr Gonzi was the last western leader to meet Colonel Gaddafi just as the crisis was about to erupt. Did this send the wrong signal to the Libyan dictator?
“That meeting had been arranged months before and dealt with purely bilateral issues such as oil exploration, fishing rights and the 5+5. With the benefit of hindsight certain things Gaddafi told us indicated he was feeling a bit uneasy. For example he expressed concern about the changes taking place in Tunisia and Egypt and asked Dr Gonzi and me why the Europeans were not doing more to preserve these regimes, which indicated he was concerned about his own position.”
What do you say to such a question? “Nothing, you just listen.”
Dr Borg does not think certain Maltese businesses which were very close to the Gaddafi regime could be blacklisted by the new Libyan government.
“Who did not cooperate with the regime? If you wanted to do business in Libya you had to cooperate with the regime.
“There might be some blacklisting of certain persons, foreigners or not, who might have been too close to the regime.
“My feeling is that the fact that Malta assisted in the democratic changeover will mean we won’t have any Maltese on the blacklist. On the contrary, our entrepreneurs have already started making new contacts in Libya, even before the fall of Tripoli. I also have reliable information that contracts with Maltese businesses will be honoured.”
He points out that the Corinthia, the joint Maltese Libyan hotel group, “was at the back of our mind” during the conflict as there were millions of dollars in investment to be taken into consideration.
“Our policy towards Libya was not dictated by the Corinthia issue but it was always a factor to be considered, and it would have been irresponsible of us not to have taken that into consideration.”
Dr Borg dismisses the possibility that Libyan gratitude to those countries which had taken part in military operations against Gaddafi will mean Maltese businesses will lose out when major business contracts are awarded.
“We were the fourth EU country to recognise the TNC and I was the fourth EU minister to visit Benghazi after ministers from the UK, Germany and France.
“There is so much business potential in Libya in a wide range of sectors, including tourism. I am sure Maltese businesses will do well.”