For the next six months, Malta will be presiding over the EU. It is a massive challenge, but not an unsurmountable one. Many (including Alfred Sant’s Malta Labour Party) had doubted Malta’s capacity to take on this role and not let it overwhelm the day-to-day government of the country.
But although Malta is the smallest country in the EU, it is not in a league of its own. Slovenia, Latvia, Estonia, Luxembourg and Cyprus, apart from Malta, have a population of around two million or less. Luxembourg, which is only slightly larger than Malta, has held the presidency 12 times since 1958, the last time in 2015. It prides itself that its small size allowed it to take on an ‘honest broker’ role between its much larger neighbours. So Malta’s take on the presidency has good precedents.
Additionally, since 2009, Member States that are going to hold the presidency work in groups of three, covering an 18-month period of closely overlapping programmes of work. The current trio is made up of the presidencies of the Netherlands, Slovakia and Malta.
Some have sniffed that government is making a big fuss over the EU presidency in terms of “għajnejn l-Ewropa fuq Malta” and all that. It happened also with the 2015 CHOGM, but also with the first one 10 years before. Does anyone honestly think that a Nationalist government would not have made at least as much of a fuss over its presidency of the EU? This over-compensation has more to do with small-island-state syndrome than the nature of the current Maltese government.
Apart from the odd (inevitable?) spelling mistake or verbal trip-up, the government has been making most of the right noises. It is right not to raise expectations unrealistically, to aim for concrete and achievable deliverables that people can readily grasp and appreciate. Its agenda certainly cannot be called ambitious, and in some areas such as education it is positively modest.
An astute administration can take this opportunity to strengthen old friendships and forge new ties, shaking hands over some quid pro quos that promote the national interest in a number of spheres.
Does our government have the moral integrity to be perceived as a respected champion of an unpopular agenda?
That is good old-fashioned politics. Can Malta do more? The religious leaders of Europe certainly hope so: they have called upon the Maltese government to “give a strong impetus to revitalising faith in the European Project” by ensuring that economic growth is not separated from social inclusion. They have urged Malta to promote a culture of life and a fair, transparent and efficient asylum system based on high protection standards.
Is this achievable? Can our EU presidency be driven by a moral imperative? Some of these issues are not exactly flavour of the month for many of Europe’s leaders. So, does our government have the moral integrity to be perceived as a respected champion of an unpopular agenda?
The answer to that question deserves an article of this own. For now, I will ask one final question: Does Prime Minister Joseph Muscat honestly believe that what is said matters more than who is saying it? Does the European Commission?
Some naughty answers
The first two weeks of 2017 have already provided some illuminating answers, although not to the questions I asked at the beginning of the year:
Now we know why Speaker Anġlu Farrugia was against the Monti stalls being set up right next to the new Parliament: they would have spoilt the incredibly elegant design of his new cuff-links.
Now we know Salvu Malia’s social policy: you have the right to be killed as a foetus or to kill yourself thereafter.
Now we know why the Libyan hijackers felt comfortable landing in Malta: like our government, they preferred not to disseminate unpleasant information, their weapons were just for show, and they had no idea how to do it properly.
Now we know what the Opposition’s cultural contribution to the EU presidency will be: a concert of Italian operatic classics, starting with Il Coro dei Muti and ending with Nessun Dorma.
Now we know what Prime Minister Joseph Muscat meant when he said he would take decisive action to discipline Konrad Mizzi. Mizzi has been condemned to continue doing his job, be personally congratulated by the European Commission and chair one of the few ministerial committees during Malta’s presidency.
Now we know the names of Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker’s three pet monkeys: See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil.