Malta told its European Union partners it would no longer take part in a new Mediterranean mission to stop arms reach warring factions in Libya, four days after the naval and air operation began patrolling.
A Maltese government spokesman and two EU diplomats told Reuters the decision was in protest at what Valetta said was an EU failure to help deal with migrants from Libya, where conflict is escalating.
Malta is not a European military power, but the decision is a blow to a mission which began on May 4 after months of diplomacy over which EU countries, if any, should take in migrants rescued at sea.
EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell warned 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.
The EU cannot patrol the Egypt-Libya land border, through which artillery is delivered, 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 on Malta’s decision, saying the mission “is a concrete example of how the EU wants to contribute to the peaceful settlement of conflict in Libya,” noting its mandate is to enforce the UN arms embargo.
Complicating matters, Malta told Brussels it will veto decisions on the operation, known as Irini, involving spending for disembarkation of migrants, port diversions and the use of drones, the government official and diplomats said. That is likely to drain mission funds.
Operation Irini counts vessels from France, Greece and Italy, one Maltese naval boarding team and three patrol aircraft from Germany, Luxembourg and Poland. The European Satellite Centre provides satellite imagery.
The breakdown in co-operation, just after France started a naval patrol and Luxembourg flew aircraft over eastern Mediterranean smuggling routes, deepens a dispute with Malta.
Maltese Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo complained Italy and Malta were left to deal with thousands of migrants crossing the central Mediterranean.
The island closed harbours and chartered two tour boats to hold migrants just outside territorial waters. It criticised EU governments for not taking in migrants after arriving 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 distress.
With EU borders closed by the coronavirus pandemic, governments are reluctant to take in migrants, although Luxembourg took minors relocated from Greece.