Malta is neutral. That’s what the constitution says, but what does that mean?

Does being neutral mean not taking sides in a war, like that which is happening in Ukraine right now? Or does it mean taking sides but not taking part?

And how can Malta be neutral on issues like terrorism, human rights violations, or peace?

These are just a few of the questions surrounding Malta’s constitutional neutrality. 

How did it all start?

In 1987, Malta’s constitution, the bedrock of its laws, was amended to include neutrality clauses, by then prime minister Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici.

It came as part of a package of reforms Labour party leader Dom Mintoff negotia­ted with the Nationalist opposition.

In fact, it was largely overshadowed by the introduction of another constitutional mechanism to do with the way parliamentary seats correspond to votes in an election.

This was in the context of the controversial 1981 election result when PN won the popular vote, but Labour was still elected to government because it had secured more seats in the House.

The PN accepted the neutrality amendments to achieve electoral reform, albeit through gritted teeth.

But back to neutrality.

Malta’s road to ‘staying out of it’ goes back a bit further than the 1980s.

When the PN was in government in the 1960s it led Malta to independence; however, the British still maintained military bases in the country against a fee.

Malta was independent, but it was certainly not neutral.

Mintoff was back in power at the turn of the decade, and it was in the early 1970s that he started implementing his vision of “non-alignment”. This was a political philosophy that was particularly in fashion at the time.

The horseshoe-buckled premier visited several countries previously off Malta’s friends' list, including, most notably, China and North Korea.

Then Prime Minister Dom Mintoff meeting Chinese leader Mao Zedong in Beijing in 1972.Then Prime Minister Dom Mintoff meeting Chinese leader Mao Zedong in Beijing in 1972.

The end game was seeing the British forces pack up and leave the island, something it did just before the decade was up.

And nearly 10 years later, Mintoff’s 1987 neutrality clauses were written to the backdrop of the Cold War – decades of simmering tensions between the US and the now-defunct Soviet Union.

In fact, the constitutional amendments even reference “the two superpowers” of the US and USSR.

What do the clauses say?

The clauses define the aim of neutrality as “actively pursuing peace, security and social progress among all nations”.

Malta should achieve this by “adhering to a policy of non-alignment and refusing to participate in any military alliance”.

This, it goes on, means that “no foreign military base will be permitted on Maltese territory” and that “no military facilities in Malta will be allowed to be used by any foreign forces”.

Should Malta's military neutrality be questioned? Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina.Should Malta's military neutrality be questioned? Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina.

Foreign military forces can enter Malta; however, this is an exception and can only be permitted in “self-defence” ‒ say, should a foreign army invade Gozo.

More specifically, military forces can come to Malta’s aid “whenever there exists a threat to the sovereignty, independence, neutrality, unity or territorial integrity of the Republic of Malta”.

Soldiers can also land in Malta to see through orders of the United Nations Security Council.

The constitutional amendments restrict the use of local shipyards by naval vessels, saying they can be serviced here only when they are in a state of “non-combat”.

Maltese shipyards are also prohibited from building new military vessels.

Challenges to neutrality over the years

Malta’s neutrality has been brought into question on several occasions.

In fact, government sources concede that it is time for a rewrite, but say it is simply not a policy priority for the administration.

The 2011 Libyan revolution had pushed the boundaries of Malta’s neutrality with the Gonzi administration facing criticism for allowing Maltese airspace to be used by foreign military forces taking part in the civil war.

Then, the concept of Maltese neutrality was pushed to its limits when two Libyan fighter jets were allowed to land in Malta when their pilots defected.

A Libyan pilot (right) emerging from his Mirage fighter jet after landing at Malta International Airport. He and a colleague, flying another jet, asked for asylum after refusing to shoot at protesters. Photo: Darrin Zammit LupiA Libyan pilot (right) emerging from his Mirage fighter jet after landing at Malta International Airport. He and a colleague, flying another jet, asked for asylum after refusing to shoot at protesters. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Many will also remember the heated discussions over the future of Malta’s neutrality when the country joined the EU in 2004. Malta’s accession treaty weighs in on the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, with a special addition ensuring Malta’s neutrality would not be compromised by common EU action.

The country’s position would clash with the EU’s common security policy in 2015, when the French government tried to activate it following terrorist attacks in Paris.

The following year, Malta again waded into treacherous waters when it refused to refuel a Russian warship on its way to the Syrian civil war.

Then eyebrows were raised when, in 2020, Cabinet ministers agreed to back a deal that would hand the US military jurisdictional powers in Malta.

The so-called SOFA agreement was eventually shelved.

Finally, Malta’s neutrality is again a topic of discussion as the country insists it will only send humanitarian aid to Ukraine in the face of invading Russian forces.

However, despite all these thorny issues, the Maltese still seem to agree with the concept of neutrality.

A survey commissioned by the Foreign Affairs Ministry earlier this year found that 63 per cent of the Maltese are strongly in favour of Malta’s position of international neutrality.  

And with government sources saying there is no urge to reform it, it seems neutrality is here to stay.

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