In January 2017, Malta will take over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union. This six-month stint provides some advantages. Malta will be better placed to influence discussion within the EU; it will be in a position to centre some of the debates on issues of regional interest and to strengthen its credentials in this arena. In this respect, Malta cannot afford to get it wrong.
Malta’s term will undoubtedly be dominated by issues that loom large over the EU. The financial situation within the eurozone and Brexit will surely be key themes on the agenda. There will also be increased pressure to set up an EU-wide army, an idea over which there is very little consensus.
Malta can use the presidency to highlight some issues of regional interest that affect several member states of the EU.
It can bring to the fore three important themes. Firstly, there is the issue of smallness. The EU is made up of several small states that face various endemic challenges. Secondly, Malta, like several other EU member states, lies on the periphery. Thirdly, the island brings to the agenda a perspective from the Mediterranean, a region of change and turmoil.
The EU is made up of a number of small states, including Cyprus, Estonia, Ireland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Lithuania and Slovenia. Small states face a number of challenges that other EU members may not share, including administrative and logistical limitations, possible diseconomies of scale and geo-strategic concerns.
This is an opportunity for Malta to strengthen its own political relevance at a critical junction of the EU’s development
For several decades, scholars have been all too quick to point out the inherent vulnerabilities present in small-island states. Other distinguished scholars, some from the University of Malta, have pointed to the resilience of small jurisdictions. These qualities may serve Malta in good stead as it takes over the presidency.
Smallness and limited capacities have often led such states to develop economic and political strategies which have demonstrated a certain degree of resilience. Nonetheless, their concerns are often given less attention. While the EU gives them an important platform to air their concerns, the rotating presidency gives them a direct role and an added opportunity.
Many small states are located on the periphery of Europe, exacerbating geo-strategic challenges.
Cyprus is torn apart by the four-decade conflict following the Turkish invasion of 1974, and the island remains divided. The Baltic states still face the looming threat of a belligerent Russia, which has the capacity to hold EU and Nato members ransom through Kaliningrad Oblast, its exclave bordering both Poland and Lithuania.
Due to its strong economic, social and political ties with the United Kingdom, Ireland will be very concerned with the eventual British withdrawal from the EU.
Yet the issue of peripherality is not limited solely to small states. With turmoil in Ukraine and in Turkey, the Black Sea will likely turn into another geopolitical hotspot. Russian politics are also likely to affect the orientation of the foreign policies of countries on the periphery.
While President Vladimir Putin’s behaviour is likely to cause concern in Poland, other countries, such as Hungary, Cyprus and Greece, are likely to turn to Moscow for support – be it political or economic.
Malta’s peripherality manifests itself in its Mediterranean location. The Mediterranean is a sea of constant change and turmoil.
Five years on from the events of the so-called Arab Spring, a sobering reappraisal is required to best devise an adequate response.
The initial euphoria and enthusiasm for the changes on the North African coast and the Middle East have given way to concern and worry.
The seemingly unconditional support for some of the movements was perhaps rash; governments were faced with a quandary over choosing the lesser of two evils. Those who sought to overthrow the previous regimes held varying political and religious beliefs. The umbrella term Arab Spring failed to take into account that each conflict in each state was to be taken on its own terms.
The situation is now dire. Libya, Syria and Yemen are now failed states torn apart by civil war, while Egypt and Bahrain are back to the status quo ante.
Tunisia is the exception to the rule. Despite the constant threat of terrorism, it has made a success of the post-revolutionary scenario.
Nonetheless, ongoing conflicts have led to an increase in migration, which in itself has placed additional pressures on the infrastructure of various EU member states. This threatens to drive a deeper wedge between the EU’s structures and among its member states.
Moreover, the Mediterranean faces its own economic challenges. The situation in Greece remains dire, while the economic situation in Italy, France and Spain is also problematic.
In this regard, the concerns of the periphery become of central importance to the functioning and the success of the European project. The late Guido de Marco succinctly summed this relationship as follows: “Bringing together Europe and the Mediterranean, which are so complementary to each other, would enhance and strengthen the political relevance of both.”
Indeed, Malta’s turn to host the rotating presidency is an opportunity to strengthen its own political relevance at a critical junction of the EU’s development.
André DeBattista holds degrees in public policy and international relations.
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