By James Burgiss, Deputy Editor of OilPrice. Originally published at OilPrice
As the Syrian refugee crisis reaches a critical impasse, both in terms of European security and refugee human rights, Brussels has found itself having to deny accusations of a secret pact between Malta and Italy to swap refugees for oil exploration rights.
The Maltese opposition leader has claimed that Malta and Italy cut a secret deal in which Malta would surrender oil exploration rights in an offshore area disputed with Italy, while Italy would return the favor by picking up Malta’s share of migrant rescues at sea.
In late March, the European Commission was forced to respond to the accusations as the Syrian refugee crisis has hit a fever pitch, denying the accusations; but it’s a complicated issue.
Maltese opposition leader Simon Busuttil of the Nationalist Party, and a member of the European Parliament until 2013, accused the Maltese government late last year of allowing the Italian government to drill for oil in Maltese waters in a dubious oil-for-migrants swap.
His accusations were boosted by the reporting of an Italian newspaper, Il Giornale, which claimed that Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had agreed to the deal with Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat.
Last September, Maltese Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Abela stated that Malta had an informal agreement with Italy take on irregular migrants from Malta, but the minister later altered that statement to a situation of “close collaboration” between Italy and Malta, according to the Italian media report.
While Malta has admitted to close collaboration, the country’s officials maintain that there is no agreement concerning migrants or linking migrants to oil exploration.
Now the European Commission has had to step up to the plate.
Malta is the European Union member country that is closest to the Libyan coast. And with that in mind, Italian centre-right lawmaker Elisabetta Gardini has recently asked the European Commission to explain why there are such low migrant arrival numbers in Malta.
Her question was poignant.
Since 2015, out of the 142,000 people who fled their homes bound for Europe, leaving from the North-African coast, only around a 100 arrived in Malta. It’s an odd situation during this heightened refugee crisis.
In 2013, Maltese officials registered 2,008 arrivals. During the same period, Italy accepted some 150,000 refugees. The argument that there was no deal would suggest that refugees simply have no desire to try for Malta.
Late last month, the European Commission finally replied to the allegations, with European Commissioner for Home Affairs and Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos saying that it was “not aware of any such bilateral agreement… between the Maltese and Italian authorities concerning Search and Rescue (SAR) operations in the Mediterranean Sea.”
“Not aware” certainly does not put this issue to rest.
That said, as reported by the Independent, the Commission noted that coincidentally the area of oil exploration in question overlaps with the migrant rescue areas.
While not being aware of any agreement, the Commission said that if there was an agreement, it would be in line with normal burden-sharing.
“When it comes to the emergency relocation mechanism, the Commission sees it as establishing concrete measures of solidarity and contributing to the fair sharing of responsibilities between member states, in line with Article 80 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU,” according to the Commission.
What’s at stake here in terms of the oil play? Quite a lot, potentially. According to an independent review, Malta has a potential 260 million barrels. But Malta and Italy have been locked in dispute over offshore exploration zones as well as over what their migrant rescue zones are.
The crux of the issue is a 2012 law passed by Italy that essentially doubled Italy’s continental shelf southeastwards of Sicily and towards the Libyan coast. Malta balked because this cut into maritime territory it claims. In late 2015, Malta and Italy reached an informal agreement to suspend exploratory oil drilling in this area.
Perhaps one open-ended question is this: With an EU-Turkey deal in place that will see Turkey (in return for some EU favors and a bunch of financial aid) take back refugees landing in Greece, it will essentially cut off the Aegean Sea human smuggling route. It might mean a renewed interest in the Libya route. And if Malta has traded off its rescue area, it will mean problems for Italy, which would have to intercept them all.