Malta’s government is determined to redefine the country’s foreign policy to enable the island to play a greater role in the Mediterranean region and beyond. A European Union member since 2004, Malta has long maintained close political and economic relations with many nations, in particular those of North Africa and the Middle East, and China. The island’s location at the centre of the Mediterranean has for centuries accorded it geopolitical and strategic importance. With neutrality firmly established in the constitution, Malta believes it can bridge the ‘diplomatic gap’ between the European Union and Arab states, assist in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further cement its relations with BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and with China in particular. The island will host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November 2015, and in 2017 it will hold its first presidency of the European Union which will give the island an opportunity to influence key EU decisions and set the agenda of the 28-nation bloc.
Despite being a small island, Malta has a history of involvement in international conflict resolution. It hosted the famous Bush-Gorbachev summit in 1989 that ended the Cold War. As a neutral country – a status that the island adopted after gaining independence from the UK – Malta was seen as an ideal venue for talks on building a new world order. But Malta not only hosted the diplomatic gatherings involving world powers, it also pursued the objectives of its own foreign policy agenda. Independence was won under a Nationalist government; but in the early 1970s the Labour Party, under Dom Mintoff, took office and governed until 1987 – a period in which the island established economic and cultural ties with the Arab world, the socialist countries of the Eastern Bloc and China. Malta, in 1972, was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. At the same time, relations with Western Europe became cooler.
With the election of the Nationalist Party, led by Eddie Fenech Adami, in 1987, Malta’s relations with Europe and the West improved greatly. The island officially applied for membership of the EU in 1990. However, following a change of government in October 1996, Malta’s application was suspended. It was reactivated when the Nationalist Party was re-elected in 1998 after a snap general election. A referendum on Malta’s EU membership was held in March 2003. The ‘Yes’ camp, led by the governing Nationalist Party, won by a comfortable 54 per cent; and in May 2004, Malta became a member of the European Union. The cornerstone of Malta’s foreign policy today is its EU membership. Despite divisions within the country and among political leaders over joining Europe, Malta has subsequently achieved cross-party consensus on EU matters. Now, more than 10 years after joining the Union, membership is regarded as mostly beneficial to Malta, for it has opened up new business opportunities and provided access to EU funds.
In December 2007, Malta became part of the Schengen area, enabling passport-free travel across national borders, and in January 2008 it joined the eurozone. The island is also a member of the Council of Europe, the United Nations, the Commonwealth and the Partnership for Peace, as well as being a keen participant in the Euro-Med process. On defence matters Malta usually allies itself with its fellow neutral EU member states such as Ireland, Sweden, Finland and Austria.
Malta’s geographical location at the crossroads between North Africa, Europe and the Middle East means that it has a particular interest in the Mediterranean region as a whole. The so-called Arab Spring was a timely reminder of the importance of fostering stability in the region. Malta recognises the importance of twinning conventional with commercial diplomacy. Successful development of trade and international business in the Mediterranean will enhance prosperity and stability for all of the regional players.
The country has also begun to orientate itself towards the world’s new rising giants in Asia and Latin America, complementing its long history of co-operation and trade with the Arab world and North Africa. In addition, the island supports the Middle East peace process, arguing that Malta could make valuable contributions as it is small enough not to be considered a threat to any one party. To strengthen relations with non-EU countries such as the US, India, Brazil and China, along with Malta’s non-EU Mediterranean neighbours, the government has established two separate ministries: an EU Affairs Ministry; and a Foreign Ministry which is exclusively responsible for maintaining relations with non-EU states.