Malta told its European Union partners on Friday it would no longer take part in a new Mediterranean mission to stop more arms reach warring factions in Libya, just four days after the naval and air operation began patrols.
A Maltese government spokesman and two EU diplomats told Reuters the decision was in protest at what Valletta said was an EU failure to help deal with migrants arriving from Libya, where the conflict has escalated sharply since April.
Malta is not a European military power, but the decision is a blow to a mission which began on May 4 after months of difficult diplomacy over which EU countries, if any, should take in any migrants rescued at sea.
EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell has warned that the bloc risked becoming irrelevant if it could not act, potentially leaving Libya’s fate to Turkey and Russia, rather than influencing events in its own neighbourhood.
Although the EU cannot patrol the Egypt-Libya land border, through which artillery is still being delivered to Libya, the EU is concerned the Libyan conflict could worsen instability almost a decade after Muammar Gaddafi’s fall in 2011.
An EU spokesman declined to comment directly on Malta’s decision, saying the mission “is a concrete example of how the EU wants to contribute to the peaceful settlement of the conflict on Libya,” noting that its mandate is to enforce the United Nations arms embargo.
Complicating matters, Malta has told Brussels it will veto decisions on the operation, known as Irini, that involving spending for disembarkation of migrants, port diversions, and the use of drones, the government official and diplomats said. That is likely to drain the mission of funds.
Operation Irini counts vessels from France, Greece and Italy, one Maltese naval boarding team and three patrol aircrafts from Germany, Luxembourg and Poland. The European Satellite Centre is providing satellite imagery support.
The breakdown in cooperation, just after France began patrolling a naval vessel and Luxembourg flew aircraft over the eastern Mediterranean smuggling routes, deepens an increasingly bitter dispute with Malta.
Maltese Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo complained on Thursday that Italy and Malta were being left alone to deal with thousands of migrants crossing the central Mediterranean.
The island has closed its harbours and chartered two tourism boats to hold migrants just outside territorial waters. It has also criticised EU governments for not taking in those migrants after they have arrived in Maltese and Italian ports.
With hundreds of thousands making the perilous crossing from North Africa each year and thousands dying at sea, EU ships are required under international law to rescue those in trouble.
However, with EU borders closed by the coronavirus pandemic, governments are reluctant to take in migrants, although Luxembourg has taken minors relocated from Greece.