Malta’s Withdrawal from EU Operation IRINI Signals Support for Turkish-Libyan Corridor

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This week, the European Council was rattled by Malta’s decision to veto EU funds for Operation IRINI, the latest EU maritime mission to enforce UN the arms embargo on Libya.

Operation IRINI was launched only months ago — taking over from the EU’s previous mission, Operation Sophia.

However, this week Malta announced it would withdraw its participation from IRINI, and with it the only boarding team on the operation.

The move is aimed at encouraging the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) to crack downon human traffickers and stem flows of irregular migration to Malta — in exchange for Malta’s acquiescence towards Turkey, which is shipping weapons to the Tripoli-based government through the Mediterranean.

Malta’s decision to withdraw from IRINI prompted a lot of questions from the EU’s Politico-Military Group, where military reps hold preparatory meetings on defense and security.

According to reports, Maltese representatives were confronted by their European colleagues on the margins of the meeting who said Malta’s withdrawal had been “the bomb of the day”.

Following this exchange, France’s representative said that France “want[ed] to know the political level at which this decision was taken and what the reasoning behind the decision is…”

The French stated they were worried Malta would pull out its contribution to a boarding team that should have been tasked to take on smugglers and other ships carrying weapons into Libya.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign minister, appeared surprised when addressing Maltese foreign minister Evarist Bartolo this weekend, saying “I am disappointed”.

Malta’s Prime Minister Robert Abela told aides he will not budge on his hardline position.

Meanwhile, Maltese officials have been courting the Turkish government because it is the GNA’s main ally and supplier of armaments.

Malta has complained to the European Commission that it is failing to hammer out a common solution for the rescue and relocation of migrants at sea. The government claims it cannot take in asylum seekers due to the coronavirus pandemic.

However, Italy — with one of the largest death tolls in Europe and its ports shut — has continued to take in migrants rescued at sea to Lampedusa and Sicily.

By contrast, Malta’s government is under investigation for having pushed back one group of migrants to Libya. It has now chartered two boats from the Captain Morgan pleasure cruise company to hold migrants outside its territorial waters, at Hurd’s Bank, denying them the right to claim international protection in Malta.

Malta is also refusing to reveal the daily cost of chartering the two boats – reportedly at well over €10,000 a day – and says it will finance the cost through EU funds.

Malta’s decision to withdraw from Operation IRINI is a clear attempt to win over Turkey. The newly launched EUNAVFOR MED IRINI operation disproportionately affects the GNA, whose weapons are mostly supplied by Turkey by sea.

The operation’s commander is assigned to Italy and Greece every six months alternatively.

Initially, the operation will have three vessels contributed by France, Greece and Italy, one Maltese boarding team and three directly assigned patrol aircrafts by Germany, Luxembourg and Poland, and the same number of vessels and aircraft in associated support.

Turkey only recently began backing the GNA with military assistance in exchange for a controversial maritime agreement that divides up much of the Eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and Libya. 

The move has inflamed Greece, which is logistically running Operation IRINI, because it cuts into its Exclusive Economic Zone around Crete.