Malta’s first ever presidency of the European Council begins when the European Union faces one of the greatest tests in its 60-year history. The UK is expected to trigger Article 50 to start Brexit negotiations in spring 2017, while euroscepticism seems to be on the rise across Europe. Leading the EU boat through these turbulent times will not be an easy task for Malta, whose population had its very own doubts on EU membership before accession in 2004. Migration, the single market, security, social inclusion, Europe’s neighbourhood and the maritime industry have been identified as key priorities for the Maltese presidency. However, the real challenge for Malta lies in developing a new vision for Europe, and the island’s leaders are committed to working hard to inject fresh confidence in the European project. Malta’s own EU success story can serve as an inspiration to others and has the potential to usher new hope in the Mediterranean region and the EU as a whole.
Migration, the single market, security, social inclusion, Europe’s neighbourhood and the maritime industry have been identified as key priorities for the Maltese presidency.
On the Road to EU Membership
Malta’s road to the EU was long and not an easy one. Having won independence from the United Kingdom in 1964, the island signed an association agreement with the European Economic Community in 1970. Full EU membership was viewed with a mixture of excitement and fear, and it was not until 1990 that the island officially applied for membership under a Nationalist government. Initially, the Maltese Labour party was sceptical over the impact of joining the EU, and after gaining power in 1996 it withdrew Malta’s application. The government at that time preferred to negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU. But Malta’s EU application was reactivated when the Nationalist Party was re-elected in 1998 after a snap general election. A referendum was held in March 2003, putting the EU membership issue in the hands of the Maltese people. The pro-side, led by the governing Nationalist Party, won by a comfortable 54%; and in May 2004, Malta became a member of the European Union. Respecting the democratic will of the majority of the population, the Labour Party changed its historic anti-EU policy in the years that followed, and Malta has subsequently achieved cross-party consensus on EU matters.
Malta’s EU journey has now come its full course as it prepares to assume the leadership of the Council of the European Union, which is one of the EU’s three main institutions. The Council shapes the Union’s legislation and seeks agreement on important political issues. Each member state holds the Presidency for six months on a rotating basis. During that period, the country holding the Presidency chairs meetings at all levels within the Council and is thus responsible for shaping European legislation from expert to ministerial level. The only exception is the Foreign Affairs Council configuration, which is chaired by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
SHADES OF EUROPE: The Malta Presidency will also mark the inauguration of the new EU Council building in Brussels that has been criticised by some as an unwarranted expense in a time of citizen detachment
The structure of the rotating Presidency of the Council provides that Malta collaborates with two other countries – the Netherlands and Slovakia – over an 18-month period. At the beginning of the Trio’s tenure in January 2016 the parties agreed on a set of over-arching priorities and drew up a common political programme. In the field of economy, the Trio prioritised delivering strong economic growth across the Union through increased investment, reforms and quality job creation. Improvement in public health as well as fighting poverty and social exclusion were also identified as key objectives. Likewise, energy ranked high on the agenda. Slovakia, the Netherlands and Malta vowed to cut fossil fuel imports and to increase the utilisation of indigenous energy sources. The completion of the EU’s energy market and the fostering of environmental sustainability constituted another priority. On the international relations front, the Trio prioritised forging stronger partnerships with neighbouring countries, while the programme also drew attention to external border management, the fight against organised crime, corruption and terrorism.
These aims do not exist in a vacuum, and many a time unplanned events can effect, if not derail, such work programmes. In fact, the Dutch Presidency was marked by an unprecedented migration crisis as well as terrorist attacks taking place in the heart of Europe. The Dutch also had to work hard to stabilise the Eurozone. However, the Netherlands could also register a number of successes. Amongst other achievements, they managed to establish compact agreements with African countries to tackle the root causes of migration while also reaching an arrangement between member states to jointly ratify the Paris Climate Agreement. The Slovak Presidency also had several wins, including the agreement on the 2017 EU budget and the opening of two chapters in the accession negotiations with Serbia. However, these and other advancements were overshadowed by the Brexit vote – seven days before Slovakia took the leadership role. This development will also affect Malta’s tenure.
MALTA'S TRIO: As customary, the heads of Government in Malta's Trio cycle have established a common work programme
Malta’s Six Months
Apart from the Trio’s work-programme, Malta has its own singular vision and plan for its six-months stint at the helm of the EU. From January to June 2017 Malta will clearly do its utmost to attain legislative and tangible progress on the issue of migration flows and internal relocation within the EU. It is also evident that Malta will employ what it believes is its call to be an honest broker for stability in the Mediterranean. This shall be pursued both by promoting political stability in troubled countries, namely Libya and Syria, but also by re-positioning the region from one associated with failing economies to one that projects positivity, economical rejuvenation and opportunity.
As a maritime nation, Malta also has the intention to push the maritime sector up a notch on the EU political agenda, thus giving the EU’s Blue Growth agenda further impetus. Malta will maintain the overarching guiding principle that shipping is a global industry and must be regulated at a global level. The completion of the internal market, as well as initiatives addressing social inclusion and poverty, which are very much in line with the social democratic politics employed by the Maltese Labour Government, will also be given attention. There will also be a push on policy areas, which will highlight Malta’s own advancements such as the championing of quality jobs, making work pay, and more funding for tourism. In health matters, it is more of a mixed basket where Malta will seek to address issues such as obesity and promote its successes on dementia-readiness for example. On the downside Malta’s tax-computation system and its thriving iGaming sector might come under attack when the big debates about tax-certainty and the updated anti-money laundering directive will come to the fore. However, Malta has stressed many times that it supports coordinated efforts in the fight against tax fraud and tax evasion but will withstand tax harmonisation.
TWO CABINETS: Malta's Cabinet of Ministers joins their European Commission counterparts for a collegial preparatory meeting
ALL SMILES: The usual pleasantries in front of cameras will surely turn more sober as Malta's Presidency might also supervise the triggering of the Brexit process
The Brexit Challenge
One of the greatest challenges Malta will be facing during its Presidency will emerge from the negative result of the UK's referendum. The Brexit vote means that Malta needs to address this new overarching dynamic in its stewardship period; especially if British PM Therese May does indeed start the exit-negotiations in March 2017. Malta’s leadership will be sought to re-engage the European citizen to the EU project and combat the perception of Brussels being run by an elitist establishment. In fact days after the Brexit outcome it was announced that EU leaders will meet in Malta in early 2017 to discuss life without the United Kingdom. The meeting of 27 EU leaders will follow earlier talks in Bratislava and come before a meeting in March in Rome to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the EU’s foundation. Meanwhile, right-wing nationalist parties across Europe seems to have been encouraged by the victory of Donald Trump in the US elections, and euroscepticism is growing in many countries, for instance in the Netherlands and France, which will hold elections next spring.
Malta has been preparing for this major political appointment for several years now. A dedicated Parliamentary Secretariat was created by the incumbent administration, and foreign capitals have lauded Malta’s professionalism in preparing the packed work-programme. To be able to chair the high-levels meetings, Malta had to invest heavily in employing and training a cohort of officials from outside the civil service. France’s prestigious École Nationale d’Administration was selected to provide this specialised training. The Grandmaster's Palace in Valletta was selected as venue to host the meetings of European Minister’s and Heads of Governments. The building, a 16th century palace with Mannerist and Baroque architecture, was the seat of the Grandmaster of the Order of St John and, until recently, served both as the official seat of Malta’s President and the Parliament. However, in 2015 the Parliament moved to the contemporary Renzo Piano building at the entrance of Valletta. The vacant House Chamber was identified as a be-fitting location where to hold the informal EU ministerial meetings chaired by Malta. Alongside the policy elements, Malta has also been preparing a cultural programme, which will see events taking place both in Valletta and in Brussels.
DYNAMISM: 30 year-old Dr Ian Borg was chosen to spearhead Malta's first ever EU Counsil presidency
A European Success Story
It is an interesting time for Europe’s smallest state to take the driving seat. While some might try and discredit Malta based on its inexperience and stature, the country’s Government will surely use Malta’s internal EU non-alignment and the country’s economic success to turn an assiduous challenge into a memorable success. The European Union needs a success story, and Malta can be one. The small Mediterranean island has made incredible strides in transforming itself into a modern, competitive economy since it joined the European club.
Malta is set to continue expanding its influence also within the Union itself
Rather than losing its influence, EU membership has strengthened Malta’s role in the Mediterranean and Malta is set to continue expanding that influence also within the Union itself. Bucking the EU trend of economic crisis, Malta has clearly shown that even a small country, at the periphery of Europe, can prosper in the EU. It can serve as an example not only to the neighbouring countries in the Mediterranean but also to larger EU states that may require an uplifting inspiration.