The Aquarius incident has found the Maltese united in our stance in defence of the national interest founded on solid legal grounds. Any attempt to intimidate us will find us again united.

I will not accept preposterous declarations like the ones by Danilo Toninelli, Italy’s Minister of Infrastructure and Transport, or Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.

I equally deplore the disrespect shown to Her Excellency Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca by the Italian MPs who chose to walk out of Parliament during her address. Her Excellency represents each and every Maltese citizen. By disrespecting her, they disrespect us.

Offended as we are, we will not however entertain an escalation of tones with Italy. Our two nations share a history, a culture and an identity. We also share a common destiny. This incident demonstrates that even more clearly. There can be no solution but a European breakthrough to the migration crisis.

I trust that with the fading of the election hubris in Italy and the onset of government responsibility, our Italian neighbours in office at the Quirinale will realise this as well.

As the dust settles on this spat and the Aquarius disembarks its 629 human beings in Valencia, we must now listen to the people. At the moment, migration by far tops their concerns according to the latest Eurobarometer.

The Maltese are a generous and welcoming people. The prospect of an uncontrolled influx of illegal migrants however provokes people’s tolerance and turns it into fear. This week tens if not hundreds have stopped us in the street with roughly the same concern: more boats will be on their way to Malta. We know very well that we cannot put their minds at rest and that this will not be the case. We will stand by the criteria of the closest and safest port. The Aquarius was closer to Lampedusa when intercepted, but this will not always be the case with other ships, especially boats leaving from Misrata instead of Tripoli.

We will not endorse a proposal leading to virtual prisons in the desert like Zuwara

The Nationalist Party is here to provide solace over such concerns, with concrete solutions that we will be pursuing with our European partners. As I stated in Parliament, we are also keen to work with the government to see to the deployment of these solutions at local level.

Solving the migration problem is by no means easy. European Union institutions have been trying for the last three years at least with no concrete result. However, we strongly believe that time and opportunity are now ripe for a solution, and our role will be to trigger it in the right direction with our political input, keeping the national interest firmly in mind while ascertaining our humanitarian responsibilities.

To start with, we will need to take a position on a proposal gathering momentum in Brussels. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who will be steering the rotating Presidency of the Council as from July, has suggested reception centres in Africa to process migrants’ applications for asylum hence rendering the perilous sea crossing pointless.

With some safeguards, we are open to this idea and we invite the government to present a united front in Europe to this effect.

The main safeguard is the one I started with in my speech in Parliament last week: human dignity and human rights are to us an inalienable and overriding consideration. We will not endorse a proposal leading to virtual prisons in the desert like Zuwara. For this reason the Austrian proposal should be supported as long as international human rights organisations are involved.  Malta has a long-standing experience and relationship with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). We can lead in proposing a working relationship of the EU with the UNHCR to establish and manage reception centres in Africa.

Reception centres in Libya or Niger may be a solution to ease the migration flows but they will not stop them. For a longer-term sustainable solution we must also treat the problem at its very roots – poverty and instability in Africa.

Imagine living in a place without clean water, with food scarcity, with constant risk of violence and without any prospect of a job or family life. Wouldn’t you leave? If we are to stop the migration crises we must therefore come to terms with the reality that only by investing in the prospects of African youth can we deter them from taking the long journey towards Malta or Lampedusa. For this to succeed we cannot simply throw money at the problem. We need a serious and honest dialogue with the African states.

The European-African summit which took place in Valletta in 2015, uniting African and European leaders, was meant to be the start of a dialogue with Africa and to serve as a vector to a partnership to manage migration. The idea was good, but we saw no follow-up and we saw no result. Did the project die? We hope not and are ready to support this initiative to grow into a proper meaningful vehicle.

Adrian Delia is Leader of the Opposition and leader of the Nationalist Party.