By Michel Cousins
Tripoli, 29 April, 2013:
The new Maltese Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, says he is looking to a new sort of relationship between Malta and Libya – one of partners who are also good friends and want to help each other.
It is something he talked about before his country’s general elections last month. If his party were to win, he said at the time, he would work for much closer ties with Libya.
In the event, his Labour part won handsomely and he is now in position to put that vision into action. Speaking to Libya Herald in Valletta, he explained how he hopes to see the relationship blossom and flourish. He stressed it should not be one where either side thinks about what it can make out of the other financially.
“I think the Libyan people need genuine friends,” he says, “friends who can tell them what they think with an open mind, who can give them suggestions, who are willing to listen and who treat each other as equals”.
“It is not ‘We Europeans, you North Africans!’ No. It is ‘We Mediterraneans’. It is how we, as equals, can move forward to develop our countries.”
Specifically, he thinks Malta can help train Libyans in a number of sectors to help Libya’s development. He cites education and healthcare as well as industries related to oil extraction and energy.
“But I would point out one key phrase,” he says. “Capacity building. I do think that Malta can help out Libya in institutional capacity-building across the board”.
Capacity-building, he believes, is the key to Libya’s success. “And” he stresses, “we are intrinsically interested in ensuring that the transition in our neighbour is a success – because we want stability in the region and we believe that stability brings prosperity.”
Public service is where Malta can help Libya’s capacity building, he says – in education, healthcare and the like. He also believes Malta can help Libya tap into EU support for this.
The island republic, he notes, has a good track record of absorbing and using EU funds. “It is not about someone writing a cheque for someone else and that’s it. It’s about having real projects that have an enduring effect on society. That is where we can help our Libyan friends achieve success.”
There are problems, he admits. Two of these are the matter of the demarcation of the territorial waters between the two countries and the issue of visas, both for Libyans wanting to go to Malta and Maltese wanting to head to Libya.
In the case of the former, it affects potential oil exploration. In 2007, the Maltese authorities allocated oil concessions in the Medina Bank area southeast of Malta, an area also claimed by Libya.
Muscat takes a practical stand. “The position from the Maltese side remains the same. We hope that, with the advent of a new government in Tripoli, we can have a fresh look at the issue. I look forward to a situation where the Libyan and Maltese sides can sit down together and work out a common-sense deal. But having said that, we will not make this a precondition to anything.”
Muscat says he hopes to be in Libya before the end of June and will be bringing the matter up with the Libyan government.
“It’s an issue –but not the issue. Our argument is very clear. But we don’t want it to be a pre-requisite for other progress to be made.”
As for visas, the Maltese would love to see a situation where they do not require visas for Libya. It would certainly help ease doing business in Libya. But they equally know that for that to happen, Libyans are looking for Maltese visa restrictions for them to be eased. Given Malta’s border control obligations as a member of the Schengen visa system, in which the 25 member countries act a single zone for international travel purposes with a common visa policy, that is not easy. But Prime Minister Muscat is looking at what can be done.
“We intend to start working on a more efficient system extremely soon,” he says.
Then there is the matter of smuggling. Boatloads of subsidised Libyan diesel have for weeks been heading illegally to Malta, although two boats carrying diesel supposedly to Malta were arrested recently by the Libyan authorities.
“We are obviously not happy with this situation,” Muscat says. “It results in lost revenues for our country. We can never condone such things. We think that there should be full implementation of regulations and rules and laws in order to make sure that only legitimate routes are taken in the purchase of diesel and petrol from any other country. So we welcome a clamping down from the Libyan side.”
There have always been strong links between Libya and Malta. Just over a century ago, at the end of the Ottoman period, some eight percent of Tripoli’s inhabitants were Maltese. In the period since, the Maltese community in Libya, mainly in Tripoli and Benghazi, has continued to play a significant role in the country’s economic life.
The links have been fortified by the fact that most Libyans view themselves as a Mediterranean people – and the first place they see when they look north across the Mediterranean is Malta. It is the closest European country to Libya. Since 2004, it is also the closest EU member to Libya – Libya’s jumping stone into the EU market.
“Malta offers a great place of investment for Libyans looking to the European market,” the Maltese Prime Minister says. “It’s home close to home, where Libyan businesses can put their mind at rest to safely penetrate the European market. They know they can basically trust us. We’re honest interlocutors with the Libyans.”
He is, of course, not the first Maltese Prime Minister to understand the value for both places of being just across the pond from each other. Others have before. The difference is that with Libya now becoming a democracy, he believes that Malta, as Libya’s closest European neighbour, can now become one of its closest friends and partners.
“One of the main changes that this government would like to bring about – I very strongly advocate this – is that we do not look as Libya as ‘OK, what can you give us?’ or “Please give us this’ or ‘Please give us that’. I think that time has long gone. We have to approach each other on the basis of equality and common sense,” he says.
“It does make common sense for Libyans to invest in Malta and it does make sense for Maltese businesses to invest in Libya. This is the approach we would like to take.”
He adds: “We intend sending clear signals to our Libyan counterparts, positive signals.” One will be the appointment of a new ambassador.
“We will show that are really, really seeking a less bureaucratic and more ‘can-do’ approach to all this.”
Given that Libya is opening out as well as the fact that so many Libyans, when thinking about heading across Mediterranean to Europe or about a short holiday break, think about Malta, then building new bridges should not be a problem.