Malta bets on pragmatic idealism for its EU presidency

Jean-Claude Juncker and Joseph Muscat prepare for turbulent times. [European Commission]

As the EU enters a period of uncertainty with elections in France and Germany, and the UK initiating a process to leave the bloc, the prime minister of Malta, whose government holds the six-month presidency of the EU until June, promised on Wednesday (11 January) to align results with the concerns of EU citizens.

Marrying pragmatism with the goal of reuniting Europe, Joseph Muscat defended the view that the smallest country in the EU will not have ‘delusions of grandeur’, but rather anchor its six-month stint in realistic pragmatism without losing sight of European ideals.

Maltese presidency gears up for the perfect storm

Malta’s deputy Prime Minister Louis Grech told EU ambassadors on Wednesday (9 November) that the Union is being put to the test, and a new impetus is needed to avoid further setbacks.

“Whatever work we will do in the next six months will translate into effective life changes for EU families and citizens,” Malta’s premier said during a press conference, just after he welcomed the European Commission to Valletta to launch the EU presidency.

Pointing at the huge disconnect between power elites and ordinary citizens, Muscat vowed to put the man in the street at the centre of the country’s presidency and focus on reinvigorating the EU project, which has lost steam as a result of divisive crises.

The Maltese have dubbed its presidency’s leitmotif ‘rEUnion’, describing it as “a fully-fledged philosophy of listening and working for the people”.

Future of Europe on the cards

Seduced by those who flag national responses to their problems, citizens are turning away from the European project, Deputy Prime Minister Louis Grech lamented during a meeting with the press.

The re-emergence of extreme nationalism and protectionism has divided leaders who disagree among themselves on the best way forward, he said.

Next March, EU heads of state and government will gather in Italy’s capital to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. The meeting should be an occasion to sketch out a new vision for Europe.

Preparation will kick off at a summit in Malta on 3 February, where EU leaders are expected to meet to discuss the future of the Union without the UK, a dialogue started in Bratislava.

Divided EU seeks unity after Brexit at Bratislava summit

EU leaders meet without Britain in Bratislava on Friday (16 September) to chart their post-Brexit future, focusing on defence cooperation and border security in a bid to heal deep divisions in particular over migration.

“In the European values that have united us for 60 years, we can find the solutions to the genuine questions that our people are asking,” Muscat said at the opening ceremony.

Solidarity, the response for migration and inequality

But don’t expect great ideas for reform. “We need to stick to the fundamentals,” said Grech. “We should not create new initiatives that would augment the current tensions,” he added, noting that the time was not opportune for any treaty change.

The country will focus on “an agenda that really matters”. Migration, terrorism, security and the internal market top the list.

Malta vows to reunite Europe during its presidency

Hinting at a European Union with a variable geometry, Malta’s parliamentary secretary for the EU presidency, Ian Borg, said the EU had to be flexible to cater for the disparate needs of member states and restore belief in the European project.

Social inclusion will also feature high on the agenda, in order to redress the socio-economic malaise spread by the lack of prompt implementation of measures adopted in the wake of the economic crisis.

“I see the limitations of (the) trickle down approach,” Muscat told journalists, underscoring growing inequality and the lack of appropriate wealth redistribution, and polices which foster economic growth.

Slamming political correctness, the Maltese prime minister vowed to come up with answers based on European values of solidarity between nations and peoples that guarantee growth and its distribution where is most needed.

On migration, Muscat conceded that it was a very tough nut to crack. “We don’t have a single silver bullet,” he noted, calling for a long-term strategy that will reassure people that the burden is equally shared.

As a country that is very much on the frontline, just 300 kilometres from the Tunisian coast and which has always been overrun with conquerors and settlers, Malta vowed to make progress on border control, pushing for the reform of the Common European Asylum System and the transformation of the European Asylum Support Office into a proper EU agency.

But on the controversial reform of the Dublin asylum system, Grech downplayed big expectations, saying that the presidency will “ensure that there is a convergence” between member states. 

Brexit, a boon for EU unity

Beyond immigration, Brexit will occupy most of Malta’s presidency, should Westminster trigger Article 50 to leave the EU in March.

A former British colony and a traditional UK ally in Brussels, Malta will be tasked with organising withdrawal negotiations.

Muscat, whose country also holds the rotating presidency of the Commonwealth, said he had rarely seen EU member states as united as they were in preparing to negotiate a deal that should not leave Britain in a better position than it is in now as a member.

The prime minister insisted that he could not see that unity among the other 27 breaking down once UK Prime Minister Theresa May launches negotiations.

Speaking alongside Muscat, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that the EU needed to show that the departure of the UK did not mean the end of European integration.

“If we are considering the Brexit case as the beginning of the end, we will make a major mistake,” Juncker said.

“The Rome summit will bring together the best energies of the European nations.”

And Malta could very well be placed to channel the winds of new energy. The country, which joined the Eurozone in 2008, has been barely affected by the financial crisis. Unlike other Mediterranean countries, it does not have debt and is not in a crisis like Italy or Greece.

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