A controversial deal that would give special status to foreign military in Malta has been shelved after the US defence secretary Mark Esper rejected a watered-down proposal this week.

The Status of Forces Agreement was discussed when Esper met Prime Minister Robert Abela during a visit on Wednesday, Times of Malta understands.

A deal has long been on the US’s wish list, but has been resisted by successive Maltese administrations over concerns it would impinge on the neutrality clauses in the constitution.  

Senior government sources confirmed that the terms presented in a draft proposal by Foreign Affairs Minister Evarist Bartolo did not meet US expectations, with sources saying the matter “has been shelved once again”.

It is understood the “diet version” of the secret deal presented to the US was a pact under the Partnership of Peace, a Nato programme designed to build security relationships between countries.

One source said Malta was not ready to accept the jurisdictional demands being made by the US. Another source was reluctant to get into details of what was discussed but conceded Malta’s offer had not met US expectations.  

Malta was not ready to accept the jurisdictional demands

On Tuesday, Times of Malta revealed that the cabinet had discussed the SOFA deal at length in the last week of July and voted in favour of a ‘watered-down’ version that the prime minister presented to ministers.  

The agreement proposed by Malta put forward a form of “concurrent jurisdiction”, which would allow both Maltese and foreign courts to have power over military personnel and equipment in Malta.

Despite that compromise solution, not all ministers had spoken in favour of the deal during July’s meeting.

Sources say the deal is a form of quid pro quo for US support when Malta’s anti-money laundering enforcement is evaluated by an international body next year.

Earlier this week, Abela denied any link between the two, saying they were “distinct”. He refused to give any details about the agreement, saying only that if a deal was signed, it would respect constitutional requirements. 

Attempts by the US to secure a SOFA pact with Malta have been ongoing for nearly two decades.

US embassy cables released by Wikileaks in 2011 claimed that then Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi was “ready to go forward” with a deal, a position the former PN leader disputes.

Times of Malta first reported that secret talks between Malta and the US about a SOFA pact had resumed back in April.

The US has signed such agreements with several other countries, designed to cover military cooperation or visits by military forces, which, in the case of Malta, would be ship visits.

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