For an average Tripolitanian, Malta (just 350 kilometres away) has always been associated with the common narratives by generations over a history of joy and pain throughout colonial times, waves of independence and nationalism. Nowadays, Libyan families consider Malta as a safe and welcoming place to live, work and study, especially after the 2011 revolution and the unfolding events to date.
Given its close rapport with modern Libya, many of us recall how Malta played a tremendous role in helping the civilians in times of crisis. There are many examples of how this Mediterranean island is largely appreciated by its southern neighbour.
Having said that, it is clear Malta is on the frontline of the worst humanitarian crisis ever seen at the Mediterranean: the dramatic surge of illegal immigration trafficking to Europe via Libyan shores and the imminent security risks with the IS threat are clear and present dangers. No viable solution will be permanently effective without re-establishing Libyan security and defence capacities under a unified government.
Today, amid hopes a unity government will emerge out of the UN talks involving Libyan factions, the Maltese government played an effective role to put the Libyan issue at the top of the EU foreign agenda and have a unified European response in dealing with the humanitarian and security crisis there.
But how can Malta make better use of its positive influence or ‘soft power’ at both Libyan and the Mediterranean levels?
I believe it is time to consider a main role for Malta in the area of institutional capacity building in Libya.
It is essential for any unity government in Tripoli to benefit from the right set of expertise in establishing the required governance and accountability structures after four decades of instability at all levels.
Malta has already started to assist Libya in building up its administrative capacities by providing training for its public sector agencies, institutions and authorities.
Malta does not lack the ‘right set’ of skills and full understanding of the local culture of the various Libyan regions. Its highly-skilled expatriate community there was and is still highly regarded in Tripoli, Misurata and other Libyan cities, especially in the oil, hospitality and services sectors.
On top of this positive perception, Malta has many EU laws and regulations in place and, with its advanced law and tax structures and disciplines, it is a promising proposition for Libya’s capacity-building efforts.
There are also a number of factors affecting public opinion that puts Malta in a favourable position to enhance its role in post-conflict Libya. As Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has noted, since the Labour Party has been in power, relations with Libya became even stronger.
Over the past two years, the Maltese government signed many agreements with its Libyan counterpart in many areas.
Still, a bigger effort is needed to meet the demands of both countries on many levels. Hence, I strongly recommend Maltese decision-makers to adopt a ‘Rethink Libya’ approach and weight the mutual benefits that would cement the links between the two counties.
This is a matter I hope would be addressed through a well-developed strategy by a think-tank consisting of a panel of experts from both countries, especially in the areas of governance and institutional capacity building.
Although one should not think in terms of Malta-Libya relations yielding immediate returns but, rather, benefits and prosperity for both nations in the long term, ensuring Libya moves fast to come in line with modern regulations facilitating its competitiveness as a business-friendly country would potentially unlock an enormous economic return for Malta given its position as Europe’s ‘historical’ gate to Libya and vice versa.
It could also serve as a model of cooperation leading to a stable and prosperous Mediterranean region for generations to come.
Thus, let’s ‘rethink Libya’ and hope for the best.
Giuma Atigha is a Libyan lawyer and human rights activist.