MEPs gave mixed reviews of Malta’s rotating presidency of the EU on Tuesday (4 July) in Strasbourg.
During a debate in plenary session, deputies said the presidency made significant progress on numerous legislative files but was too timid on taxation issues and struggled to overcome resistance from member states to advance on migration.
The Maltese Presidency concluded at least 24 main legislative dossiers, while it went through snap elections in May, as Prime Minister Muscat bowed to pressure over fresh allegations that a third Panamanian offshore company belonged to his wife. This leaves a legacy for the Estonian Presidency to work on.
During the debate, the show was stolen by the fight between European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Parliament President Antonio Tajani.
“The European Parliament is ridiculous, very ridiculous. I applaud those who have bothered to turn up. But the fact that there are only about 30 MEPs here for this debate demonstrates that the Parliament is not serious,” Juncker said, with a frankness rare among political leaders.
“If Mr Muscat, the prime minister of Malta, had been Mrs Merkel or Mr Macron, we would have had a full house. The Parliament is totally ridiculous,” he added. As a Luxembourger, Juncker regularly expresses his dismay at the lack of respect shown by the larger EU member states for their smaller partners.
Malta assumed the six-month rotating presidency for the first time since its accession in 2004. The small country set out a clear program of six priorities: Migration, the single market, security, social inclusion, Europe’s neighbourhood and maritime policies.
The first half of 2017 was not without challenges. The presidency had also to deal with the UK invoking Article 50, while facing uncertainty as the Dutch and French voted for new governments.
Former Prime Minister and head of the Maltese S&D delegation, Labour Party lawmaker Alfred Sant, told the European Parliament on Tuesday that the Maltese Presidency has passed over to Estonia, its successor, a state of play that in most sectors inspires hope of further progress, mentioning immigration, Brexit and tax policies.
In a last-minute sprint, the Maltese Presidency secured a political agreement on EU entry-exit system on the last day of the presidency. The new IT border system is an important element of the EU’s Smart Border Initiative to greatly improve security in the EU.
Once it enters into force, the system will register entry, exit, and refusal of entry information of third-country (non-EU) nationals crossing the external borders of the European Union. The deal follows the mandate given by EU leaders at the European Council Summit in December 2016, where EU co-legislators were tasked with agreeing to the new system by the end of June 2017.
Commenting on the agreement, Maltese Minister for Home Affairs and National Security Michael Farrugia noted that “the entry-exit system is part of the EU’s efforts to strengthen the control of our external borders. It will allow us to better manage migration flows, in particular in cases of overstay, and improve our response to the current terrorist threat”.
Malta also secured a political agreement with the Parliament on the regulation establishing the EU Agency for Asylum, but it failed in finding an agreement on the asylum reform. Visa liberalisation for Georgia and Ukraine was also in the active sheet of the presidency.
“Malta cannot be blamed for the lack a solution on migration,” said German Green MEP Sven Giegold. “However, there was a failure when it came to the money laundering directive under this presidency. When it comes to financial crime, all of Europe needs to work together, rather than each member state trying to look out for its own interests.”
Tax avoidance and money laundering
On taxation, Malta has made progress by piloting through important legislations such as ATAD II and the Double Taxation Dispute Resolution Mechanism. These legislations contribute to the prevention of tax avoidance.
Belgian Green MEP Philippe Lamberts slammed Malta for being part of a tax haven club. “On fiscal justice, your government has fiscal certainty, there are problems here. Mr Muscat, with things like this, who would have thought you were a socialist,” he said.
The PM replied and defended his government, which he said stood for free healthcare, education, higher pensions, better social security, and civil rights. “I’ll let you decide if that is social justice or not,” he said.
— Valdis Dombrovskis (@VDombrovskis) July 4, 2017
Climate and environment
According to an assessment published by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), Malta has performed well in relation to nature protection but badly when it comes to measures to tackle climate change or transform the EU’s energy system.
The Maltese government took quick action to support implementation of the EU Action Plan for Nature, People and the Economy once it was published in April, but the EEB was less satisfied with the efforts and outcomes in the negotiations on the revision of the legislation on waste and energy efficiency, where it felt opportunities were missed and that more could have been achieved.