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Malta pressures Italy, Libya for joint tri-partite oil exploration

Malta was exerting diplomatic pressure on Italy and Libya to discuss its proposal to negotiate a tri-partite joint oil exploration agreement in an area in the east of the Mediterranean seas being contested by the three countries.

Foreign Minister Tonio Borg told Parliament yesterday that last year he had announced that he had taken the initiative and made a concrete joint exploration proposal to both the Italian and the Libyan governments. Negotiations were still ongoing but Malta was using its pressure to get the other governments to come to the negotiating table to discuss this proposal.

Malta was in favour of joint exploration because this avoided reference to the International Court of Justice and, without prejudice to any presumed rights, the countries could arrive at an amicable way to exploit resources and leave the theoretical issue of sovereignty unprejudiced.

Dr Borg was answering a series of supplementary questions by opposition resource spokesman Joe Mizzi. He clarified there were three contested zones to the east of Malta. One was on the east of the median line, which was decided by the International Court in 1985. This was further down to the zone contested by Malta and Libya only. There was another strip contested by Malta, Italy and Libya and another area being contested by Malta and Italy.

In reply to the original question by Evarist Bartolo (PL) the minister said that the Joint Experts Group formed between Malta and Tunisia to identify zones where there could be joint oil exploration, had met four times between April and July of 2006. He said that the issue was also raised in talks with the Tunisian Foreign Affairs Minister in May 2007, May 2009 and June this year – the last two meetings within the framework of the Malta-Tunisia joint commission.

After the state visit by then President Fenech Adami, Malta and Tunisia signed a declaration of intent pledging to work to start joint exploration. Talks were then started to see how this declaration could lead to a proper agreement.

Dr Borg would not go into details of the difficulties encountered because, he said, he did not want to put the Maltese government at a disadvantaged position in its future dealings with oil exploration companies.

He said that the contention was whether the joint exploration should be in an exclusive Malta and Tunisia zone or whether it should be in other zones where third countries could have an interest.

Malta had always insisted that joint exploration should he made only where there were claims by Malta and Tunisia. Dr Borg said that the matter would become complicated when other countries like Libya and Italy were brought into the matter. There were zones in the west of the Mediterranean seas which the four countries were contesting. No agreement had been reached between Malta and Tunisia on an area where joint exploration could be carried out.

There were other difficulties insofar as Malta had given a concession in contested zones. But, he said, these should not be an obstruction to a joint exploration agreement. The matter had been raised in the joint commission and Minister Borg himself had raised it with Tunisian ministers and he was working to arrive at identifying an area where there were overlapping claims. If there was a political agreement on this area, then they could arrive at the technicalities.

Why had the matter taken so long to resolve? asked Mr Mizzi. Why were the Italians brought into the picture when there were areas where only Libya was the contesting party?

Dr Borg said that the Italians had included the disputed area in the case before the International Court in the Malta-Tunisia case in 1985. In 2008, they protested through a note verbale because Malta had given a concession in this area.

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