The Opposition has rightly drawn attention to Malta’s mute voice in the recent worrying developments in Libya. The news that Fajez Serraj, the Prime Minister and head of the internationally recognised government of national accord in Tripoli, has recently been holding talks with the Italian government without Malta apparently being invited to attend or, at least, being involved in prior consultations, has highlighted Malta’s lack of engagement with an issue of pressing national security concern.
Given Malta’s strategic position, its long history of acting as an honest broker between Europe and Libya and, more importantly, the need to protect Malta’s own national interests in this key unsettled central Mediterranean region, the apparent exclusion from such talks and the government’s diplomatic silence at a critical moment are a worrying reflection that the Minister for Foreign Affairs appears to have lost his way in this key area of foreign policy.
Any objective assessment of Malta’s relationship with Libya over the last 50 years recognises the difficulties that successive governments – of whatever political hue – have had to face in dealing with this maverick (failed) state on our doorstep.
Maltese governments of whichever persuasion have had to sup with the devil, and for the most part to use a very long spoon. It has always been a matter of extremely fine judgement in playing the game of realpolitik to know how close or how far to get in dealing with this oil-rich but unstable state.
Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army is attacking the largely powerless UN-recognised government of national accord in Tripoli, potentially opening up fertile opportunities for former terrorist cells to infiltrate. Although the Maltese government has belatedly expressed shock at the air strikes which killed and injured scores of migrants in Tajoura Detention Centre, it should also be actively engaging with other countries seeking diplomatic solutions to this dreadful slaughter on our doorstep.
The battle for Tripoli could lead to hundreds of Isis fighters escaping jails and joining waves of migrants fleeing the Libyan capital in boats across the Mediterranean. It is worth remembering that Isis rose amid chaos and a vacuum. When the vacuum returns, it could, too. Chaos could lead it to suffer the consequences of desperate migrants seeking asylum in Europe.
Malta’s geo-strategic position and its proximity to North Africa on the main route through the central Mediterranean makes us especially vulnerable.
Libya remains Europe’s Achilles heel. The government must find its diplomatic voice. It should now be working closely with other Western allies to address the underlying sources of instability to try to bring an end to the chaos of state dysfunction, desperation and economic hardship that has fuelled instability.
For Malta, the challenge of dealing with our Libyan neighbour continues as it always has done.
It is in Malta’s vital self-interest to continue to foster good relations.
The government must be active in playing its limited hand carefully. It must offer every humanitarian and diplomatic assistance that it can.
The measure of Malta’s success in this enterprise will lie in striking the right balance between hard-nosed support for Prime Minister Fayez Serraj’s internationally recognised government of national accord and acting as a bridge-builder between the parties involved on the ground, as well as other countries actively seeking a diplomatic solution.