Prime Minister Joseph Muscat pledged to develop much closer ties between Malta and Libya in an interview with a Libyan newspaper published this week.
Speaking to the Libya Herald, an English-language newspaper, Dr Muscat argued that the two countries should become genuine friends ready and willing to help each other.
“I think the Libyan people need genuine friends, 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,” the prime minister said.
“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.”
Dr Muscat said that Malta can be of particular assistance when it comes to capacity-building within the institutions of a country in transition following decades of dictatorial rule under the late Muammar Gaddafi. He stressed that Malta had an intrinsic interest in ensuring that Libya’s transition is successful, since stability in the region brought prosperity.
The prime minister said that Malta can also help Libya tap into EU support for capacity building within its public service, stating that Malta had a good track record of absorbing and using EU funds.
Existing disputes between Malta and Libya were also addressed during the interview, including the long-standing dispute on the maritime boundaries between the two countries – which has an effect on Malta’s oil exploration prospects.
“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,” Dr Muscat said.
He added he was aiming to visit Libya before the end of June, and that the matter would be brought up with the government. But he insisted that settling the dispute would not be a precondition for agreements on other issues.
“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,” he was quoted as saying.
Another issue concerns visa requirements: presently, each country’s nationals require visas to visit the other country, a potential hindrance for doing business.
Malta hopes to persuade Libya to lift its visa requirements for Maltese nationals, but Libya is also seeking an easing of visa requirements. As a member of the EU’s Schengen system, Malta cannot do so unilaterally, but Dr Muscat said that he was looking at what can be done – including a more efficient system for processing applications.
The prime minister also drew attention to smuggling, pointing out how boatloads of subsidised Libyan diesel have been making it to Malta illegally.
During the interview, Dr Muscat also pitched Malta as an investment destination for Libyan business.
“[Malta is] 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 said.
Malta has long courted Libyan investment, but Dr Muscat stressed that now that Libya was becoming a democracy, Malta’s approach has changed.
“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 said.
“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 added that the Maltese government intended to send clear signals to Libya, including through 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,” he said.