So fa(r), so good?

It seems that at the moment there is a combination of circumstances that has given the US a stronger hand in its dealings with Malta that has been accused of being a haven for money laundering – for which Robert Abela can only thank Joseph Muscat

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper
US Defence Secretary Mark Esper

The very idea that Malta is entertaining the possibility of agreeing to a long-standing US request to sign a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) has raised the hackles of a large number of politicians and political observers.

The PN in Opposition, Alfred Sant – former Labour leader who served some 20 months as Prime Minister – and numerous Labour exponents oppose such a move and are shaking their heads in disbelief at the reported news of this old skeleton being raised from the dead.

What is SOFA? SOFA stands for ‘Status of Forces Agreement’ between a host country and a foreign nation stationing military forces in that country. SOFAs are often included, along with other types of military agreements, as part of a comprehensive security arrangement.

In fact, the US Defence Secretary was in Malta last Wednesday to discuss a Status of Forces Agreement with the Maltese government.

If it were to sign such an agreement, Malta will have to cede to the USA all criminal jurisdiction on US military personnel who break national laws. In fact, criminal jurisdiction is one of the key clauses in these arrangements that lay down the privileges and immunity enjoyed by US military personnel and contractors of the American defence department.

In truth the US has signed SOFAs with many countries all over the world, including countries that are EU member states like Poland, which considers the presence of US troops on its soil as a vital part of its security in the face of the preying eyes of its Russian neighbours.

Malta has no such agreement yet, having refused many attempts made by the US since we became an independent state. Every Maltese government considered such an agreement as a slight on Maltese hard-earned sovereignty. Malta’s experience with the presence of foreign troops is not a very happy one, even though such a presence was the source of financial support to so many Maltese breadwinners. Malta does not look at its security the way Poland looks at its security. The history of the two countries and their geographical position are as different as chalk and cheese, even though we share a lot of ideals and traditions.

So, if the big majority of people who matter in the political sphere are dead-set against such an agreement, why is the current administration discussing it with the US government?

Reports claim that Malta is now on the brink of giving up its long-standing opposition to SOFA as part of an unwritten deal for Malta to secure US support on the upcoming Moneyval test.

The Foreign Ministry has denied reports that Cabinet had already given its go-ahead for a SOFA agreement with the US, and the Prime Minister denied that there was any link between plans for SOFA and Malta’s upcoming Moneyval anti-money laundering assessment, saying the two were distinct. In other words, officially there is no ‘quid pro quo’ between the two issues.

I cannot understand the claim that the proposed SOFA deal would give the US greater freedom to police Hurd’s Bank, a very shallow area in the Mediterranean often used by smugglers to move illicit goods in mid-sea and also to break sanctions.

On the other hand, I can understand the US interest in monitoring the activities going on at Hurd’s Bank. Recent reports claim that Russian oil is being sent to Venezuela, using the bank to the east of Malta as a transfer point... and so bypassing US sanctions.

While using Hurd’s bank for ship-to-ship transfers off Malta for the creation of larger cargoes for long-haul shipments is relatively common, the trend of transferring oil and chemicals for onward shipments to Venezuela has developed quite recently as a way of beating US sanctions. This has made US monitoring of what is going on there of paramount importance – at least for the US.

But why does the US need to sign a SOFA with Malta to do this job properly and even better than it can do it now? Are we going to have some sort of US military presence in Malta? Dom Mintoff must be shaking in his grave.

Hurd’s Bank is not within Malta’s territorial waters and what goes on there is outside Malta’s jurisdiction, which is why so many activities – whether above board (!) or illicit – are continually going on there, in the first place.

It seems that at the moment there is a combination of circumstances that has given the US a stronger hand in its dealings with Malta that has been accused of being a haven for money laundering – for which Robert Abela can only thank Joseph Muscat.

Did anyone mention Moneyval?

It’s all Greek to me

There is no doubt that the Maltese surname ‘Grech’ is a corruption of the word ‘Griek’ – in English ‘Greek’. Historians point out that back in mediaeval times, ‘Griek’ did not refer to only people from today’s Greece but included anyone who came from the Byzantine Empire. That empire reached its greatest extent, after reconquering much of the previously Roman western Mediterranean coast, including North Africa.

The moniker, obviously, became a surname, that is the eighth most common surname in Malta.

Making the point that Labour’s actions in government do not put Malta in a good light, PN leadership contender Bernard Grech said that when he is abroad he says that he is Greek so as to avoid the embarrassment of people reacting negatively since the news about Malta was no recommendation.

Grech was speaking in a televised debate with the other contender, the current incumbent, Adrian Delia.

It is true that Joseph Muscat’s government has put all of us to shame in the eyes of many foreigners but to deny being Maltese is naive and lacks self-respect.

To mention that you do so habitually when abroad, during a debate with another contender for the PN leadership shows the extent of Bernard Grech’s superficiality. Imagine: a Nationalist Party leader denying his nationality!

Many might think that this Greek anecdote is no serious issue. It is not.

But Bernard Grech’s saying it is a reflection of his superficiality and lack of deep thought. This is an issue, of course.