The Libyan crisis has been a major foreign policy challenge for Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi and the government – in fact it was the major foreign policy challenge for Gonzi ever since he became Prime Minister a few years go.

Relations between Malta and Libya will be close and can only get better now that Gaddafi belongs to the dustbin of history- Anthony Manduca

The Prime Minister handled a difficult situation very well; he was not afraid to take risks and had the courage to denounce the atrocities being perpetrated by the Gaddafi regime at an early stage of the conflict when the outcome was not yet clear.

Throughout the crisis Malta served as a hub for the evacuation of foreign nationals from Libya, provided humanitarian and medical assistance to Libya, granted asylum to two Libyan Air Force pilots who defected after being ordered to bomb protesters, refused to return the pilots’ jets to the Gaddafi regime, allowed Nato jets implementing the UN-sanctioned no-fly zone to land in Malta whenever necessary and exchanged intelligence on the Libyan conflict with Nato.

The Prime Minister made it clear way back in March that Gaddafi’s exit was “inevitable”, a message he reiterated in early April when he told the visiting then Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister, Abdul-Ati al-Obeidi (who was recently arrested by the Transitional National Council) that Gaddafi and his family “must go” and the Libyan people’s wish for democracy must be respected.

Malta’s support for the Libyan revolution has been appreciated by the country’s new rulers and the chairman of the Transitional National Council, Mustafa Mohammed Abdul Jalil, has already made it clear that Malta will have a “distinguished role” in the rebuilding of Libya.

Both Jalil and interim Libyan Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril visited Malta recently, very soon after Tripoli fell to the rebels, in a sign that relations between the two countries will be close and can only get better now that Gaddafi belongs to the dustbin of history.

“Malta is our closest neighbour, we share historical ties, we share the Mediterranean culture, and we look forward to strong relations in all fields,” Jalil said when in Malta. He added: “We will benefit from Malta’s experience in development and reconstruction. We have the resources but we lack the expertise.”

Malta was the fourth EU member state to recognise the Transitional National Council and Foreign Minister Tonio Borg was the fourth EU minister to visit Benghazi when he did so in July, which is quite significant. Throughout the conflict Maltese NGOs and business organisations were in constant contact with the TNC leadership in Benghazi.

Malta has always had good relations with Libya and this is understandable when one considers that the two countries are neighbours. Unfortunately, however, the Labour administrations of 1971-1987 were politically far too close to the Gaddafi regime, at the expense of our relations with Western Europe and the US.

During this period Gaddafi interfered in our domestic politics and Malta’s relations with the Libyan regime became the cornerstone of our foreign policy. At a party level, Labour was particularly close to the Libyan dictator, and declassified CIA cables dating back to between 1988 and 1991 alleged that the party had received funds from Gaddafi.

After the Nationalist Party was elected to office in 1987, relations with Libya were restructured. The new government, rightly so, wanted to have cordial relations with a neighbouring country and to encourage commercial ties with Libya.

However, military co-operation between the two countries was scrapped, there was no association with the Gaddafi regime and Malta’s orientation was towards Europe and EU membership.

It is false to state that relations with Gaddafi’s Libya were the same under both Labour and Nationalist governments, as some people have argued.

Relations between Gaddafi’s Libya and Nationalist governments was more a case of ‘Finlandisation’ – a term which certainly cannot be used to describe the links between Malta and Libya under the 1971-1987 Labour administrations.

The Nationalist governments of both Eddie Fenech Adami and Lawrence Gonzi understood that cordial relations with Libya, a neighbouring country, were in Malta’s interest, as was encouraging business ties between the two countries.

A country cannot ignore its neighbour, even if it is led by an eccentric dangerous dictator such as Gaddafi, because the two countries are located in the same region and therefore have common interests.

Of course, one can argue that Malta and the EU were too weak when dealing with Gaddafi over issues such as human rights and irregular immigration. The problem was, however, that the EU had almost zero leverage over Gaddafi, which made influencing him even more difficult.

However, when the time came for Malta to support the Libyan people in their quest for freedom, Lawrence Gonzi did just that, even though there were obvious risks involved, both military and commercial.

Gonzi’s strategy paid off, and today Libya’s new rulers have acknowledged Malta’s role in their revolution.

From now on, Malta’s relations with Libya will no longer be a case of ‘Finlandisation’ but hopefully of two friendly democratic countries bound by common values. The potential for increased commercial ties between Malta and Libya is therefore enormous, and Malta has much to gain as a result.

Although foreign policy is usually not a determining factor in national elections, I have no doubt that the government’s handling of the Libyan conflict will be an important issue in Malta’s next election.

As for Labour, even though the party leadership more or less supported the government’s position on Libya, it remained silent over Gaddafi’s atrocities throughout the conflict and the Prime Minister was criticised in Parliament for saying Gaddafi’s end was inevitable.

It is clear that Labour still has to come to terms with its past connections to Gaddafi.

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