“Inversely, as a country with a closeness and understanding of its southern neighbours and the Arab World, Malta seeks to be a trusted interlocutor and a voice sensitive to their realities within the European Union…”
“Undoubtedly, Migration and Brexit loom large in the immediate horizon as does the reality of the growing cleavage between European citizens and their institutions. These challenges raise issues which go to the heart of what the Union is about. It is in the manner in which such issues are tackled that solidarity is manifested and the future starts to be shaped…”
GDL: Given its geographical location and its rich history, could you please elaborate on the role of Malta as a builder of bridges between different vested interests?
JC: Geographic location, history, culture and economic relations are principal elements which have determined Malta’s geopolitical relevance as a European and Mediterranean island State over the ages. With European Union membership, Malta’s cultural versatility acquired greater meaning and value in bettering dialogue and cooperation in the Mediterranean Region. As a historic meeting place for reconciliation and dialogue, Malta seeks to project the European Union’s positive elements towards its neighbours to the South of the Mediterranean. Inversely, as a country with a closeness and understanding of its southern neighbours and the Arab World, Malta seeks to be a trusted interlocutor and a voice sensitive to their realities within the European Union.
Within this context Malta has actively supported the enrichment of synergies between initiatives such as the Union for the Mediterranean, the Anna Lindh Foundation, the 5+5 Western Mediterranean Dialogue and the League of Arab States all of which, albeit with distinct mandates, lay the foundations for the future of the Euro-Mediterranean region. The upcoming EU-South Regional Dialogue Ministerial Meeting in April 2017 is yet another Maltese endeavour with the purpose of bringing together Foreign Ministers from the EU, the Southern Neighbourhood and the Gulf Cooperation Council.
In 2008, Malta hosted the first meeting EU – League of Arab States’ Foreign Affairs Ministerial Meeting, bringing into fruition the initiative undertaken by Malta in 2006 that called for a structured dialogue between the two regions. EU-LAS Ministerial Meetings serve as an effective means to tackle the common political and economic challenges. It is through continued development and the strengthening of the relations between the EU and the League of Arab States that will contribute to regional security, prosperity and democracy.
GDL: What is Malta’s contribution to the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy?
JC: As a country that is strongly committed to the Mediterranean region, Malta is always at the forefront of the discussion when the situation in the southern neighbourhood is discussed at EU level. Our extensive knowledge of the region and excellent bilateral relations with neighbouring countries allows us to share valuable insights on the region with other EU countries and such contributions are always greatly appreciated by other Member States.
“Aware of the potential ripple effects of instability beyond Europe’s borders, the Maltese Presidency will focus EU engagement on the stabilisation of our neighbourhood. The EU’s first line of work in this area remains effective diplomacy…”
GDL: Malta assumed the EU Presidency at a very important time: there are several issues pending during your Presidency. What are your expectations and what do you expect to achieve?
JC: In setting up Malta’s priorities for the Presidency, we identified crucial areas on which the leadership of the Council of the EU is focusing, namely:
Migration and asylum: Malta has taken a very active role in finding an international sustainable and humane solution to unprecedented level of irregular migration, as showcased in November 2015 during the Valletta Summit on Migration that brought together European and African Heads of State and Government. In an effort to strength cooperation, whilst addressing current challenges and opportunities of migration, the Valletta Summit on Migration recognised that migration is a shared responsibility of the countries of origin, transit and destination. Sixteen priority actions were agreed upon, including addressing the root causes of irregular migration and forced displacement and enhancing cooperation on legal migration and mobility. In February 2017, as a follow-up of the Valletta Summit, Malta hosted the Joint Valletta Action Plan: Senior Officials’ Meeting during which the Malta declaration on the external aspect of migration addressing the Central Mediterranean Route was agreed at the level of Heads. As the two-year period for the relocation of 160,000 people in need of international protection gets closer, we are conscious of the need to ensure better implementation. In this respect, the Presidency has also presented an implementation plan, which is operational in nature, and seeks to identify a number of actions for each of the elements set out in the Malta Declaration.
Strengthening the EU’s Single Market: Within the context of the free trade area which many regard as the EU’s greatest asset, Malta’s priorities have included a final end to mobile phone roaming charges and tearing down the digital fences that stop some EU citizens from buying goods and services from other EU nations, a practice known as geo-blocking.
Security in the Neighbourhood: Europe’s security and prosperity are inter-linked with those of our neighbourhood. Countries bordering the Southern Mediterranean are facing serious challenges, including armed conflict, terrorism, political instability and radicalisation. Aware of the potential ripple effects of instability beyond Europe’s borders, the Maltese Presidency will focus EU engagement on the stabilisation of our neighbourhood. The EU’s first line of work in this area remains effective diplomacy and in this respect the EU Global Strategy is an important reference to guide the Union’s action and determine its role as a relevant and effective player to manage the complex challenges of migration, terrorism and hybrid threats. In light of the growing instability beyond the Europe’s borders, our efforts have been devoted to bolstering democracy and security. Southern Mediterranean countries are facing serious challenges, including armed conflict, terrorism and radicalism. This is crucial to our citizens’ security and to promoting European values of responsibility and solidarity. Our aim is help to stabilise Libya through peaceful unification and to work towards a breakthrough in the Syrian conflict. We will remain supportive of EU and international efforts to resume the Middle East Peace Process between Israel and Palestine.
Social inclusion: Social policy is something that the Maltese Government holds dear. Malta is justly proud of its historical record in social policy and this is an area where our experience can benefit our European partners. Work here will be guided by close consultation with social partners, civil society and citizens in order to advance gender equality and rights of minorities and vulnerable groups. Malta will continue to combat gender-based violence, in particular by promoting the sharing of best practices and exchanging information on existing legislation, policies and strategies, as well as statistical data and studies. The Presidency is focusing on ensuring that women get a fair deal in all areas of society and on ramping up efforts to combat gender based violence.
Promote growth in areas such as maritime tourism and sea freight: The EU will be increasingly dependent on the seas and oceans; the sustainability and continuing development of the maritime sector, under the EU Integrated Maritime Policy, fits naturally with the legislative priorities of an outward-looking island nation in the southern Mediterranean. In addition, the sector provides a diverse spectrum of innovative research and commercial activities that could be developed into high value-added job opportunities in line with the Blue Growth Initiative towards growth and competitiveness. Malta’s priority in this area is to ensure the sustainability and effective governance of our oceans. In fact, Council reached a preliminary political agreement with Parliament on a draft regulation defining the specifications of fishing vessels.
“The Maltese Government has long noted that implementation deficits of the Union and frustrations on the numerous recent crises are directly fuelling populist parties across the EU.”
GDL: What do you think are the most arduous topics in the Presidency programme?
JC: Undoubtedly, Migration and Brexit loom large in the immediate horizon as does the reality of the growing cleavage between European citizens and their institutions. These challenges raise issues which go to the heart of what the Union is about. It is in the manner in which such issues are tackled that solidarity is manifested and the future starts to be shaped.
Migration raises complex and sensitive issues relating to security, to economic and social well-being and to human rights. Within this context illegal immigration and asylum is one of the priorities featuring high on our agenda during the Maltese Presidency. While the reform the Common European Asylum System is certainly divisive, there is also a great deal of consensus amongst all Member State on the fact that the status quo cannot continue and that change is needed. We have taken forward the work on the proposals revising the Common European Asylum System with the aim of achieving results, which all Member States can support, but which are also tangible and effective. On the internal front, there are still differences on the issue of burden sharing – relating to the notion that it is the Union collectively, and not members individually, that bear primary responsibility for the migrants which arrive. Dealing satisfactorily with this internal aspect constitutes a significant factor in defining the nature of solidarity within the Union for the future.
Brexit has also dominated the headlines as a political and complex issue. After triggering Article 50, the United Kingdom is now on the other side of the negotiating table. Notwithstanding the announcement on 18th April 2017 by Prime Minister May that a snap election will be held on 8th June 2017, the President of the European Council has confirmed that the EU’s Brexit negotiation plans are not to change as the Brexit guidelines are expected to be adopted by the European Council on 29th April and the Brexit negotiating directives are to be completed by 22nd May 2019.
It is to be remembered that there is an EU agenda that should not be allowed to be side tracked by the matter. Unity at EU27 is a fundamental principle, which should govern the whole process. The attitude that the Centre knows best what is good and necessary for all, needs to give way to a more open and collaborative method of agenda setting. Tasks need to be tailored more directly in response to the realities on the ground, than to institutionally defined objectives.
“The groundwork for future action starts with meeting the challenges of the present. Bringing the citizen and the Union closer together remains an unfulfilled but widely desired objective… Tasks need to be tailored more directly in response to the realities on the ground, than to institutionally defined objectives.”
GDL: Do you agree with the general consensus that at the end of the day small European States simply pay lip-service to their role as ‘honest and neutral brokers’?
JC: It is commonly thought that European policy is dictated by the larger Member States; however this line of thinking does not take into account regional influence and added value. Throughout our experience as EU Member States, we have pursued a smart state strategy, through highly focused goals and political initiatives representing regional common interests, which allows small states to maximise their influence whilst acting in their respective niches.
Malta is not only centred strategically in the centre of the Mediterranean, but is geographically and historically close to North Africa and has never shied away from promoting the interests of the regions in the EU whilst sharing its expertise. Indeed, since its independence, it has formed invaluable networks with Southern Mediterranean States and has consistently promoted all matters Mediterranean.
The Law of the Sea has been called the most significant legal instrument of the 20th Century and the fact that it has been proposed by Malta is proof of how small states can be empowered by joining forces with other states. Our voices are amplified and we are stronger together.
Another initiative of Malta was the proposal in the 1998 UN General Assembly of the concept of “conservation of climate as part of the common concern of mankind”. This led to the 1990 decision to start the process that resulted in the UN climate change convention. Malta’s vision 20 years ago was described as “phenomenal” and stimulated this discussion worldwide.
GDL: Malta and Greece, both Mediterranean countries, are at the forefront of the challenges that Europe is faced with today. Which are the anticipated tangible results?
JC: The groundwork for future action starts with meeting the challenges of the present. Bringing the citizen and the Union closer together remains an unfulfilled but widely desired objective. There is a need to streamline and simplify the institutional process and to make the institutional process itself more responsive to the needs and concerns of the citizens. Tasks need to be tailored more directly in response to the realities on the ground, than to institutionally defined objectives.
Such open collaboration will inevitably give its own shape to the future of the European project and to the solidarity within it. We ought to look closely at the initiative launched by the Commission for a debate on the future of Europe through the published White paper. The objective that the voice of the citizens ‘will be a catalyst of our progress’ should be a critical determinant of the success or otherwise of this exercise.
In the white paper, the starting point for the Commission is that the 27 Member States are determined to move forward together as a Union. In spite of different views on substance and method, this basic premise remains widely and deeply shared among us. If the debate on the future of Europe is to genuinely involve all our citizens, we need to be well prepared to take the case also to these people.
The Maltese Government has long noted that implementation deficits of the Union and frustrations on the numerous recent crises are directly fuelling populist parties across the EU. We believe that crisis such as those of migration have a spill over effect and that one of direct consequences is the rise in popular protest movements and parties.
Along the once calm political landscape in Europe, we are seeing the emergence of right-wing upstarts that have created what President Juncker has termed “galloping populism”. In Europe, we now have a situation where there are several movements calling for their countries to close up and turn inward to old, outdated nationalistic ways.
The diagnosis to this is known. The EU has been saying for quite some time that it needs to address frustrations, listen to its citizens and implement decisions taken. Our Presidency is formulated around the simple theme of rEUnion with the focus being on regaining citizens’ trust in the EU. The EU needs to address citizens’ concerns in a language that does not require interpretation. Citizens must feel that policies are making a practical difference in their lives. The EU must speak louder about its success if it wants to reconnect with its citizens.
Moreover, in Malta’s view, enlargement remains the EUs most effective foreign policy tool in bringing about security, stability and good governance in its immediate European neighbourhood. The EU acquis and its implementation reflect shared European values and act as a basis for reform. The further advancing of the socio-economic integration of the citizens of these countries is crucial. In this light, during its Presidency Malta will ensure that notwithstanding Brexit discussions, attention has been attributed to the Western Balkans as it is in the interest of both the EU and these countries to speed up integration so that security and stability in the region are increased.
“Citizens must feel that policies are making a practical difference in their lives. The EU must speak louder about its success if it wants to reconnect with its citizens.”
GDL: Which sectors should both countries focus upon in order to further strengthen their bilateral relations?
JC: The commercial sector presents several opportunities for Malta and Greece to enhance their relations. Logistics, advanced manufacturing and life sciences are among the most promising areas for stepping up commercial cooperation between the two countries. Maltese products are competitive in some of the world’s most sophisticated and highly demanding markets. Malta’s competitive cost base, its skills structure, the considerable experience, as well as the high level of training standards, make our country a viable proposition to the relocating foreign entrepreneur.
Coupled to this, Malta’s business environment, its strategic position together with its cultural links with North African, Mediterranean markets and the Middle East make it an ideal hub for trading, distribution and marketing operations between the three continents. Indeed, Malta is nowadays placed on major regional trade routes. Over time, the country has naturally developed its infrastructure in order to cater for the requirements of the transportation systems and logistics operations to accommodate the increased demands of a globalised world.
The Malta Freeport, established in 1988, is the first transhipment hub in the Mediterranean and today the third largest in the region. Malta Freeport focuses on the ‘hub’ concept, whereby cargo is discharged from large mother vessels and relayed to a network of regional ports by regular and frequent feeder vessels. Over 96% of Malta Freeport’s container traffic is transhipment business. This logistic concept offers several gains for Malta Freeport’s clients, including fewer mainline port calls, reduced voyage times through minimal diversions and shorter transit times by switching east-and-west-bound services over at the port facility.
Completed recently, the Life Sciences Park in Malta is geared towards advanced pharmaceutical research & business development with its goal being to intensify cooperation in the areas of education, research and innovation by providing state of the art infrastructures, creating access to scarce expertise and increasing access to grants and funds. The Park incorporates pharmaceutical/biotech laboratories and research facilities aimed at supporting knowledge-based companies.
“The Presidency Malta will ensure that notwithstanding Brexit discussions, attention has been attributed to the Western Balkans as it is in the interest of both the EU and these countries to speed up integration so that security and stability in the region are increased.”
GDL: Valletta will be the European Capital of Culture in 2018. What events can we look forward to and are you also using the Maltese EU Presidency as a further opportunity to portray the rich art and culture of this wonderful island also referred to by the ancient Greeks as Μελίτη – honey-sweet?
JC: Valletta’s European Capital of Culture year opens on the 20th January 2018 with an official ceremony. As part of the opening festivities, various dynamic shows will be using Valletta’s open spaces, namely the Triton Fountain, Castille Square, St. John’s Square and St. George’s Square, as the backdrop for their performance. Minister Bonnici emphasised that the work done was not only to safeguard the cultural heritage, but also that of education and raising awareness in an important sector which can contribute to the economy, especially in the creation of jobs. Artistic Director for Special Events Mario Philip Azzopardi said, “Several public spaces in the city will be used to host spectacles for the opening weekend”. A number of attractions will be taking place including the participation of international acrobatics company La Fura Dels Baus, performances by Żfin Malta dancers and digital projections around the city. An opera season is also being planned. This includes Aħna Refuġjati – an operatic work by young Maltese composer Mario Sammut that recounts the struggles of a family attempting to escape their war-torn country, as well as the Orfeo & Majnun opera which combines the Greek myth of Orfeo and Eurydice with the Middle Eastern legend of Leyla and Majnun.
Valletta 2018 has been incorporated in the Malta Culture Programme attached to the 2017 Malta Presidency of the Council of the European Union as a vision which not only brings forth the dynamics of a vibrant country in the middle of the Mediterranean with a European vocation, but also as a statement in its own right charged by the importance of culture as doer and mover in the direction of new opportunities for the Maltese and European citizens as a whole. This six-month tenure of the Presidency took Valletta as the point of departure by hosting a variety of culture events which will continue to develop further during the course of 2018.
Besides, Valletta 2018 has adopted a series of well-established festivals such as the Valletta International Baroque Festival, the Malta International Arts Festival, the Strada Stretta Concept Events and the Valletta Green Festival, amongst others which fuse the historic with the contemporary in a fashion like no other. In the second part of 2017, when Malta will no longer be at the helm of the Presidency of the Council of the EU, Valletta is set to continue with its cultural momentum reached so far, by resolving to engage further with driving the cultural, social and economic regeneration in Valletta and the Maltese islands through apt collaboration, exchange and innovative practices reachable.
Interview by Nicolas Boutsicos
Editor, Greek Diplomatic Life