Government and opposition are in agreement about Malta’s fishing zone extension in the wake of Libya’s and Tunisia’s controversial claims over the last three months which are eating away Maltese fishermen’s historical fishing grounds.
Tunisia’s latest decision, adopted by the Tunisian Parliament on 21 June, is also feared to affect Malta’s oil exploration ventures although the official coordinates have not yet been announced. Even Libya, which unlike Tunisia has already started enforcing its new zone, has kept its coordinates to itself.
A bilateral fisheries agreement between Libya and Tunisia signed last May already sets the backdrop for private partnerships in the fisheries and tuna ranching and fattening industries – a further blow to Maltese fishermen who are seeing their historical fishing grounds slowly being eaten away while Spanish tuna industry giant Fuentes is increasing its control of the Mediterranean in partnership with Libya and Tunisia.
Home Affairs Minister Tonio Borg announced on Monday in Parliament that government was about to extend Malta’s exclusive fishing zone, a day after MaltaToday revealed Tunisia’s decision. Yesterday, Foreign Minister Michael Frendo presented the first reading of the Bill to amend Malta’s fishing conservation zone, paving the way for the extension before MPs go on summer recess.
Borg’s announcement found the opposition’s immediate approval through Deputy Leader Charles Mangion, who expressed the Labour Party’s support to the government.
“This is a question of our national interest,” Mangion told The Malta Financial and Business Times. “That’s why we believe we should devote one session of the House to this debate, so that we give a message of national unity on this issue by getting these amendments endorsed by both sides of Parliament.”
Labour’s spokesman on foreign affairs, Leo Brincat, complained that government did not inform Parliament’s European and Foreign Affairs Committee about Tunisia’s decision even though Foreign Minister Michael Frendo insisted that government knew about it days before he was contacted by
“We weren’t even given an informal briefing about the situation,” Brincat said. “While we remain close neighbours, we have to look at our national interest. I don’t understand, for example, how we had a 5 + 5 summit last week with Tunisia’s and Libya’s foreign ministers present without using the occasion to discuss these issues with them. I understand government does not want to irk our southern neighbours but at the same time we cannot sweep the problem under the carpet.”
Labour’s EU affairs spokesman George Vella was even more critical, saying that despite Malta’s friendship with Libya and Tunisia, these were still passing laws that impinged on Maltese interests without discussing them during bilateral visits.
“I’m sincerely concerned because despite our recent Parliamentary foreign affairs committee’s visit to Libya, we were faced with this fishing zone question immediately upon our return,” Vella told the parliamentary committee on Monday. “In the case of Tunisia it’s even more acute. The committee has just returned from Tunisia just while the Tunisian Parliament was passing this law to restrict fishing. Has anyone told you anything about this, because if not, what is the value of having these bilateral meetings? I sincerely believe that if we’re dealing openly with a country they should have told us what they were up to, because it seems to me that this committee has been ridiculed, by returning all happy about Tunisia’s friendship without being told what was going on.”
The chairman of the committee, Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi, replied that “it would be unfair to expect a parliamentary committee to get informed about these decisions.”
“The committee wasn’t informed and I didn’t expect it to be,” Azzopardi said. “Our remit is that of a parliamentary committee, not governmental. Our trips abroad are intended to strengthen parliamentary diplomacy, not to change the world.”
But Vella insisted that this was not a “parliamentary friendship committee” but a committee on foreign affairs.
“It would have been basic courtesy of the Libyans and Tunisians to inform us,” he said.
Speaking yesterday to The Malta Financial and Business Times, Vella said: “I insist this is the same as with the issues we had in the past about oil exploration, because exclusive economic zones also forbid oil exploration by other countries. That is why, as Opposition, we definitely agree on extending our fishing zone.
“If the others are setting their borders we have no alternative but to set ours.”
Minister Frendo said this issue was about “the two most important neighbours in our south with whom we have invested a lot for our friendship”.
The minister voiced his “disappointment” at Libya’s failure to produce the coordinates of its own zone declared back in April but expressed his trust in Tunisia that it will provide all the information once its decision is enforced.
“We have voiced our concerns with Tunisia, with whom we enjoy excellent relations despite this difficulty,” Frendo said.