To read some commentators, Malta ought to be given a medal for stopping IRINI in its tracks. Actually, acting from purely national considerations, Malta may have actually done the EU a good turn.
Let’s get the basics right.
Irini, from the Greek name for peace, is the new name of the EU peace effort in Libya, born as a result of the Berlin conference of last January.
But the aftermath of the conference has seen the member states dismantling the tenuous structure of the Berlin agreement.
More basically, the Berlin efforts at mediation have been disrupted by the offensive by general Haftar against Tripoli. The European governments have ended up split with France siding with Haftar and the others backing the Tripoli government.
In the past weeks drones and planes from Turkey have attacked the Haftar forces and forced it to withdraw. Haftar on his part is backed by Egypt and some Gulf states. The conflict in Libya has become international.
Enter the EU. It removed the previous mission, Sophia, and created Irini which aimed to resurrect a not too successful UN mission against arms transfers. Malta was to furnish the troops who would have boarded ships.
Irini could never work. It was based on sea missions and thus it was perceived as being against the Tripoli side because Haftar can get reinforcements on land and through the desert.
Its structure was too feeble and too dependent on every single country which could stop it at will. And again single countries could order it to move to another area if they so wanted.
Then the migrants issue came up with force. The mission’s ships could exercise a pull factor and rescue migrants from the sea.
Which was when Malta, facing the pandemic and the prospect of innumerable boatloads and emulating Italy closed its ports and refused to take in more boat people.
As we know, two boatloads of migrants are now housed on two Captain Morgan boats just outside the Maltese waters. Malta pulled the plug of Irini and vetoed funds for the mission.
How Europe intends to get of this impasse is anybody’s guess.
On the Maltese side, it is now clear that the migrants cannot be pushed back to inhospitable Libya which is not a safe country at all. Nor can the Maltese state use non-official persons to do its job for it.
Hosting the migrants on relatively small ships and for quite some time is just a stopgap solution, doomed to fail if more and more turn up.
Now that Irini is dead, unwept and unsung, the EU member states must come together to create, if possible, a better alternative. It must be one that builds on solidarity, not national selfishness.
Malta must remain firm without however earning a bad name for itself as uncaring about the plight of so many unfortunates.