Malta’s EU membership – How and Why?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Malta’s EU membership – How and Why?

The Hon Dr Eddie Fenech-Adami, Prime Minister of Malta, addressed the latest in an EPC series of meetings with the new Member States on 25 September 2002, on the subject: “Malta’s EU membership: How and Why?” A question and answer session followed. This is not an official record of the proceedings and specific remarks are not necessarily attributable.

The Prime Minister summed up the “how” of membership by insisting that Malta was fully committed to embracing the EU “acquis” in its entirety, without ducking any of its new responsibilities.

On the “why”, he said that EU membership was a “natural and logical” next step for Malta, which shared the Union’s aspirations. The majority of Malta’s 400 000 citizens were absolutely convinced that the nation’s future rested with the Union and would vote “yes” in a referendum after entry negotiations were completed.

Improving the EU’s democratic image

Dr Fenech-Adami said the latest and largest enlargement would “underpin and inspire” the EU, reinforcing a far-ranging period in Union evolution. He described the EU as a hybrid set of institutions, with an unusual distinction between legislative and executive functions. The danger was that such a distinction blurred the vision of the EU as a “definable entity” in the eyes of the world, and also downgraded the more visible democratic part of the structure, the European Parliament.

This blurring of the EU image explained the Union’s growing remoteness from citizens, who needed to be made to feel part of the process, with a better understanding, and real leverage over decision-making. The delicate balance between federal and intergovernmental elements of the EU was another problem – and the Nice Treaty had left a “strong aftertaste” of unfinished business. The current phase of Union development – a Convention followed by another IGC – needed to retain a firm grasp on the wider dimensions of the process.

Meanwhile, the candidate countries should be moving from observer status to full participation in EU affairs as soon as possible – even before formal membership is completed. The Prime Minister said the current group of candidate countries had had to cover far more complex ground than any of their predecessors in terms of adopting the “acquis”, particularly in the agricultural sector and in the institutional reforms mentioned in Nice. The latter remained a necessary element for the closure of the enlargement negotiations – something he said Ireland should keep in mind when voting once more in a referendum on the Nice Treaty.

State of negotiations with Malta

Mr Fenech-Adami said Malta’s view of EU membership had been constant for many years and he himself had been voted into power on a pro-EU ticket in 1988. Now the country had closed most of the negotiating chapters for membership.

Another two – environment and competition – should be provisionally closed soon, and negotiations on customs were complete apart from the unresolved issue of zero-rating on pharmaceuticals. Agriculture is in progress, leaving just the financial package to be settled in the concluding months. In other words, Malta’s accession negotiations are well on track and the Commission’s next progress report, in October, should reaffirm the commitment of Malta to meet the full requirements for entry.

However, Malta made no apology for tenaciously holding tight to its national interests. It had sought special arrangements across a dozen chapters because some things need time to come into line with the EU, particularly safeguards on the free movement of workers, constraints on acquisition of property and protection for farming and fishing sectors. On the sensitive issue of hunting, the Prime Minister emphasised that the way the sport is conducted in Malta had to be compatible with EU nature conservation.

Indeed, Malta would not duck any of the membership requirements – but it had to be in a position to fulfil those aims. There would be hard negotiating, but in the end the EU was, he said, “a partnership aimed at resolving shared problems rather than an institution imposing arbitrary obligations.”

He acknowledged there were difficulties on the budgetary implications of membership, with Malta siding with many other candidate countries in finding some “inapplicability” in the current proposed financial package on offer.

Mr Fenech-Adami was confident about the outcome of the referendum Malta will stage after the negotiations are concluded: a substantial majority of the electorate deeply shared the view that Malta’s future lies in the EU. There was some debate over the timing of membership, with only a few people seriously contesting the desirability of membership. “We have a convincing case to make that the timing is now and that the time is right” said Mr Fenech-Adami.

Conclusion

Malta strongly supported the Community method, and could make its own contribution to the process, not least using its own insights and experiences to help promote further Euro-Med cooperation.

Malta had little indigenous production. Imports are more than a quarter higher than exports, and the country’s attractions are mainly geographical and climatic. EU membership would therefore significantly enhance its provision of services and increase its attraction for investment best suited to a small, modern, open economy.

EU membership, added the Prime Minister, was a challenge as much as a promise and Malta looked forward to both.

Discussion

Answering questions, he said Malta was fully prepared to undertake its obligations under the common foreign and security policy. The role of neutrality, as set out in the 1987 constitution, was these days anachronistic and irrelevant: “Malta will take on its obligations (on security) and will have no problem participating.”

Challenged on how the sports of hunting and trapping conformed with the EU’s wild birds directive, the Prime Minister said his Parliament had adopted new legislation on animal welfare which was fully compatible with the EU acquis. But he acknowledged that there were very powerful hunting and trapping lobbies in Malta and it had been “quite a job” to find a way through negotiations which were now almost concluded, but which still required “all our intellectual resources” to achieve compliance with the acquis. But he promised Malta would not “go outside” the acquis, although it did require a transitional period on the issue. The result would not please anyone fully, but it should be acceptable, objectively.

Asked about Malta’s approach to the extension of qualified majority voting, full co-legislation powers for the European Parliament, and the Commission President being elected by MEPs, Mr Fenech-Adami said he had no fixed opinions. He was against federalism if it meant a United States of Europe, but there was a clear division between EU and national competences, so the full federal model need not apply. He was sure all Member States, old and new, would continue to insist on retaining national sovereignty “where there are exclusive competencies”. It was obvious that institutional structures would have to change to accommodate enlargement, and everyone had to be “matter-of-fact”. He added: “As long as we are united in our objectives and what the EU stands for, we will find satisfactory resolutions.”

On the massive task of translating the acquis, he said Malta had beefed up some areas of bureaucracy, with new authorities in telecoms and the environment, in addition to an overall review of administrative structures.

He rejected a suggestion that, given some of the accession ob stacles for Malta, the EU might be less than keen on Maltese entry. The reverse was the case, said the Prime Minister, with a lot of goodwill and a lot of understanding of the circumstances in Malta and some of the remaining accession difficulties. Agriculture would be reformed, and an accord would be reached.

He elaborated on Malta’s expertise in the EuroMed area, pointing out that Malta’s geographical position and its history gave it an edge over other nations as a valuable interlocutor. But he said there would be no progress on EuroMed issues in terms of the Barcelona Convention until the Palestinian problem was resolved by establishing two independent sovereign states.

Pressed on whether his government could really win the referendum on EU membership, he said the narrow 4% gap recorded in a recent survey of those in favour and those against was a significant figure in Maltese terms. He was sure that a significant number of opposition Labour politicians would back EU membership because “that is where the Maltese feel they belong”. Apart, he added, from the hunters, and some in the business community.

For more analyses see The European Policy Centre’s

website 

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe

Want to know what's going on in the EU Capitals daily? Subscribe now to our new 9am newsletter.