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Italy relations at crossroads

Malta and Italy have had very close political, economic, social and cultural relations ever since we attained independence in 1964. Most Maltese have a good understanding of Italian, Italy is a very popular vacation destination, thousands of Italians live, work and holiday in Malta, the two countries have strong business ties and are very close friends and neighbours within the European Union.

Before being entitled to EU funds, Malta was very generously granted millions of euros in financial aid by Italy. And until recently, Italy also had a permanent military mission in Malta which helped in search and rescue operations as well as in large engineering projects.

Recently, however, relations between the two countries have been going through a rough patch as a result of differences of opinion over migration – mainly which country should be responsible for taking in boatloads of migrants in the Mediterranean. Italy’s new popu­list government maintains that migrants in Malta’s search and rescue zone should be taken in by Malta, while Malta argues that migrants should proceed to the closest port, in many cases Lampedusa, which is part of Italy.

This is not the first time that Italy has adopted a somewhat hostile attitude towards Malta vis-à-vis migration – relations were likewise strained in 2004 when the then Northern League was also in government – but the situation today is worse. Not only is the right-wing League in office, it is governing in coalition with the equally populist 5-Star Movement which despite being less ideo­logical than its partner, has nevertheless adopted a hardline migration policy.

This unfortunate state of affairs has led to a barrage of tweets by Maltese and Italian politicians accusing each other of abdicating their responsibilities and failing to abide by international law. Worse still, Italian Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli actually called for sanctions against Malta, accusing it of failing to rescue migrant boats in the Mediterranean and leaving Italy to carry the burden.

And an Italian police officer took to Facebook to insult Malta’s Ambassador to Italy, Vanessa Frazier, after he objected to her comment about Lampedusa being closer to Africa than Malta. Although this prompted an official apology from the Italian government it showed just how strained relations between the two countries have become.

Italian-Maltese ties are too important to be allowed to deteriorate. An effort must be made by both countries to reset our traditionally excellent bilateral relations. As Tonio Borg and George Vella, two distinguished former foreign ministers, pointed out last week, the solution to rising tensions over migration bet­ween the two States is to sit around the same table. “You don’t find an answer to something as complex as this by Tweeting,” Dr Vella rightly pointed out. And Dr Borg made it clear that the best solution would be to have a bilateral summit between the two countries.

Indeed, since the formation of Italy’s new populist government, there has not been a bilateral summit between Joseph Muscat and his Italian counterpart, Giu­seppe Conte, nor has there been one bet­ween home affairs ministers Michael Farrugia and Matteo Salvini. The only bilateral meeting held so far was between Foreign Minister Carmelo Abela and his counterpart Enzo Milanesi – who has little or no say in Italy’s migration policy. True, Dr Muscat and Prof. Conte have met on the sidelines of EU summits, and Dr Farrugia and Mr Salvini have attended EU ministerial meetings, but these are hardly a substitute for bilateral summits.

When a new government of whatever political colour takes office in Italy, it has always been the practice of Maltese administrations to immediately seek a bilateral meeting between the two prime ministers, even if there are no outstanding issues involving the two countries. Three months down the line, no such meeting has taken place, despite sharp disagreements existing over migration.

The Maltese government should make the first move and request a major bilateral summit, or even a series of meetings between the two governments, involving not only the two prime ministers but also the home affairs, transport and defence ministers to try to come to an agreement over migration. The EU, which has a good record of resolving disputes bet­ween European neighbours, could play an important part in these negotiations. Too much is at stake to simply carry on with a ‘business as usual’ attitude.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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