The fact that Malta has been neutral for 30 years enriches both Malta as well as its status of neutrality. It has undoubtedly passed the crucial test of time with flying colours. The Maltese themselves have benefitted immediately and directly for these three decades from neutrality’s peace dividend as have our Mediterranean neighbours too, a whole decade before the end of the Cold War.

Although neutrality seemed to have flowed seamlessly from Prime Minister Dom Mintoff’s successful closure of the British military bases by 1979, it was not automatic.

Nor was neutrality immediately tangible or easily quantifiable. This was in sharp contrast with past experience. In 1972, Mr Mintoff had famously succeeded in increasing the bases’ rent to an astronomically higher rate of €32.5 million per annum for seven years, dwarfing the previous 1964 Financial Assistance Agreement payments, which had been reduced after 1969 to €3.5 million a year. Rent was then regularly being paid for rapidly diminishing UK/Nato territorial rights here, which gradually tapered off year by year to nil by March 1979.

By March 1979, Mr Mintoff had already launched the neutrality concept. Starting with the preferred quadripartite negotiations with Italy, France, Libya and Algeria, while keeping a bilateral accord as a fall-back, these neighbours were engaged diplomatically from 1976 to recognise the value of, as well as to sustain, a neutral Malta.

Instead of continuing to trade our geostrategic position for a higher rental even possibly with the other side in the Cold War, the bargaining took a different turn. Since Mr Mintoff would no longer trade Malta’s geostrategic position for any new post-1979 rental payment, he could guarantee to our neighbours they would face no more threats from foreign military bases here, a new asset called neutrality, which they were encouraged to buy into.

It served their security magnificently without exposing us any longer to defence or security risks. Non-aligned Malta avoided the dangers of foreign entanglements. Thus, Malta would no longer be involved in defending or attacking others as it was bound by the 1964 Anglo-Maltese Mutual Defence Agreement, with the associated risks to Maltese life, limb and property.

Malta could now, however, still have others assist in its own defence but without the previous obligation of offering support in the guarantor’s defence. It no longer formed part of or served a military alliance, antagonising adversaries of the more powerful members of the alliance to threaten the weakest link in and around the alliance.

Mr Mintoff’s passion for Malta to be free and neutral among nations had found in Italy’s perhaps most far-sighted Prime Minister, Aldo Moro, a most understanding partner from the start. First, Mr Moro intervened with Nato, helping Mr Mintoff conclude the 1972-1979 agreement with Lord Carrington, although that agreement terminated the UK/Nato military bases here.

He was foremost then in assisting Malta to adopt its status of neutrality. By 1977, when we last met him, Mr Moro and Mr Mintoff agreed on the general principles of our neutrality, leaving us to resolve in 1978 the problems of definition, of upping the weak guarantee in the form of “mere consultations” and overcoming Nato’s veto due to their “simulated threat” or governo fantoccio concerns.

Convening at the Farnesina in mid-March 1978, together with Edgar Mizzi, for our first round of politico-juridical negotiations with the Italians and French, I will never forget the commotion caused by the news that Mr Moro had just then been kidnapped. Again, his long shadow fell over us in the second round at the Farnesina in mid-May 1978. Mr Moro’s corpse was just found in the luggage boot of a car placed in contemptuous equidistance between the Christian Democrats’ and the Italian Communist Party’s headquarters.

More negotiations followed. We inched ahead, agreeing on the politico-juridical definition both of our own neutrality and the terms of a corresponding declaration from Italy and France welcoming, recognising and supporting our neutrality. A few square brackets were left and there was no financial agreement.

That Italy’s note verbale accepting neutrality, including a financial package, came on September 8, 1980 following our meeting at Palazzo Chigi with moroteo Prime Minister Francesco Cossiga on September 3 was indeed telling. This conclusively brought Italy in from the cold which it had been relegated to since September 8, 1943! The historical sources of instability in Italo-Maltese relations, “irredentism” and British bases here, were now factors of the past. It befell the Labour Party, free from any tinges of wartime fascist collaboration, to finally settle this relationship for good.

With the signing of the Neutrality Treaty, relations between Italy and Malta were stabilised for the first time in modern history. The Neutrality Treaty was initialled simultaneously at the Auberge de Castille by Mr Mintoff and at the Farnesina by Foreign Minister Emilio Colombo on September 15, 1980.

Malta had slowly but surely persuaded Italy to increase Arnaldo Forlani’s 1977 offer to merely continue with Italy’s previous contribution under the 1972-79 agreement of $4.2 million per annum. Finally, $16 million a year for five instead of three years, together with an una tantum very soft loan of $15 million were drafted into the First Financial Protocol as agreed upon in our talks with Mr Cossiga in Rome on September 3, 1980. A Second Financial Protocol was negotiated with Prime Minister Bettino Craxi and Foreign Minister Giulio Andreotti and signed in Malta with Prime Minister Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici in November 1986.

Our neutrality formula had already stood the test of time very well.

That our successors in government after 1987 comfortably inherited Italo-Maltese relations set in this ready-made mould of neutrality meant that they could easily extend these First and Second Financial Protocols, with some modifications from our experience, to a Third, a Fourth and even to a Fifth Protocol but not to a Sixth! The Fifth Protocol ended in 2007. We have never been told why a Sixth Financial Protocol was not sought or concluded.

However, it is the text of the Italian declaration recognising our neutrality which is too often overlooked by those concerned only with our own declaration of neutrality. It defines quite precisely Italy’s own obligations generated in our regard because of our neutrality. We had negotiated it with the Italian side quite explicitly and this makes it most interesting.

In Italy’s declaration welcoming Malta’s neutrality with satisfaction, Italy solemnly declares it recognises and will respect … the neutrality… of Malta and will act in conformity therewith in all respects.

It undertook, in particular, not to take any action whatsoever which could in any way, directly or indirectly, endanger the sovereignty, independence, neutrality, unity or territorial integrity of Malta; not to take any action whatsoever which could in any way, directly or indirectly, endanger peace and security in Malta; not to take part in any act of such nature; and not to induce Malta to enter into a military alliance, or to sign an agreement of this kind, or to accept the protection of a military alliance.

Italy also undertook in article 3 to invite all other states to recognise and respect our neutrality and to act in conformity therewith in all respects and to refrain from taking any incompatible action.

In article 4, Italy undertook to consult with the Maltese government at its request whenever the Maltese government declared that there existed a threat of violation, or a violation of the sovereignty, independence, neutrality, unity and territorial integrity of Malta.

In article 5, Italy undertook that, in the event of a threat of violation, or a violation of the sovereignty, independence, neutrality, unity and territorial integrity of Malta… or should the need arise for the exercise of the right of self-defence in the circumstances set out in article 51 of the UN Charter, it (Italy) would adopt any other measure, not excluding military assistance, it will consider necessary to meet the situation.

While some cast doubts on the Maltese declaration of neutrality as entrenched a decade later in our Constitution, hardly anyone has cast any doubts on the above corresponding Italian part of the Neutrality Treaty, which is manifestly a plus in Malta’s diplomatic arsenal.

Commemorating this 30th anniversary cannot be a mere formality. So many aspects of Italo-Maltese relations within the context of our neutrality can yet be improved upon for the next 30 years.

Dr Sceberras Trigona is a former Minister of Foreign Affairs.

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