Bartolo dismisses claims Turkey seeking use of Malta airbase

Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo and his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, in a meeting in Ankara in July 2020.

Speculation that Turkey wants to use Malta as an airbase to help provide military support to the UN-backed Government of National Accord in Libya have been dismissed as “rubbish,” by Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo in an interview with the Financial Times.

Malta and Turkey – the key military ally of the GNA in a Libyan civil war which is currently in a state of ceasefire – have stepped up their diplomatic contacts in recent months. Earlier this year, Malta withdrew from the EU’s Operation IRINI, tasked with implementing the UN arms embargo on Libya, which was opposed by both Turkey and the GNA.

Given Malta’s strategic location, claims that Turkey would seek to use the island as an airbase to help support Libya may seem reasonable, but Bartolo insisted that no such request was made.

“We are a tiny, neutral country — it’s in our constitution. It’s not in our interests and I think it’s not in the interests of the Mediterranean for Malta to be used against any neighbouring country,” he told the Financial Times.

Bartolo warns of growing Mediterranean tensions

Bartolo also spoke about an ongoing dispute between Turkey and European states – particularly Greece and Cyprus – concerning gas exploration in the Mediterranean. Turkey has been conducting drilling off Cypriot waters that the EU has condemned as illegal, but which it defends as being carried out on behalf of Northern Cyprus, a de facto independent Turkish Cypriot republic recognised only by Turkey.

France has declared that it would be increasing its military presence in the Mediterranean over Turkey’s ‘unilateral’ gas exploration, leading to mounting fears of conflict among NATO members. Turkey, Greece and France are all members of the military alliance: in light of its political situation, Cyprus is not.

 “If they are on very bad terms and there’s a lot of hostility, it is going to spill over into the rest of the Mediterranean,” Bartolo maintained. “It’s in our interests to as much as possible find ways of de-escalating and having dialogue, however difficult it is.”

Bartolo recalled that in a meeting with his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu last month, he brought up the 1962 Cuban missile crisis as a good example of a face-saving resolution to a dangerous standoff. He also highlighted that the EU needed to take into account Turkey’s role in curbing migration to the bloc.

“If we turn away from each other, I don’t think it will be a good development — even for the EU,” he said.

The EU’s foreign ministers are set to hold an informal meeting to discuss the situation in the eastern Mediterranean this week, ahead of an EU summit next month.

Though Greece and Cyprus pushing for a tougher stance, Malta is just one of various countries wary of undermining the EU’s links to Turkey, which is presently hosting over 3 million Syrian refugees, in addition to asylum seekers and migrants from other countries.