Malta’s unlikely responsibility…

Malta has a vested interest in keeping security and defence firmly on the EU’s agenda

Malta should not shy-away from calling for greater European cooperation on security and defence
Malta should not shy-away from calling for greater European cooperation on security and defence

As we pop the corks on our champagne bottles to ring out the end of 2016, Malta will take on its most historic responsibility since joining the European Union. For six months in 2017 Malta will hold the Presidency of the EU. In a pre-Brexit world the idea was for Malta and the United Kingdom to hold back-to-back presidencies. Following Brexit however, the UK may relinquish its responsibility and Malta and Estonia (the next state in line after the UK) may have to extend their respective tenures.

The role of presidency is not simply ceremonial and Malta will have an opportunity to shape EU priorities. This is not about governing the EU for six months but it is about shining a light on issues that Malta deems essential. While Brexit negotiations are likely to take up a lot of political energy, it is important for the ‘remainers’ – the EU27 – to make a positive case for Europe. Malta has a role here.

Malta will indeed be taking the reins in what is likely to be an extremely challenging year. Combating the rise of populism, boosting economic opportunities and dealing with conflict on Europe’s borders are just some of the pressing issues facing the EU. This is not to even speak of the possible effects that next year’s presidential elections in France and federal elections in Germany will have on the future direction of the EU.

While the government and Maltese members of the European Parliament are already working hard to formulate Malta’s priorities, all eyes will be on the island to present a coherent programme that addresses the economic and security needs of European citizens. At a time when the EU will want to dust itself off after Brexit, Malta will have a crucial role in forging an optimistic path forward.

As part of its EU presidency Malta will take on an unlikely responsibility for European security and defence. This may not automatically register as a priority for Malta, given the country’s neutrality, but Malta has a vested interest in keeping security and defence firmly on the EU’s agenda. The challenge of irregular migration from Africa and maritime security in the Mediterranean are just two issues of vital importance to Malta.

Of course, Malta will not be alone if it wants to prioritise security and defence. For example, Federica Mogherini – the EU’s foreign policy chief – has just published a rather interesting document entitled the ‘EU Global Strategy’. Given all the noise surrounding Brexit, one would be forgiven for not knowing much about the document but it is important because it sets the tone for the EU’s engagement with the world for the next few years.

The ‘Global Strategy’ is an interesting document that deserves closer inspection. For example, Europe’s first security strategy – published in 2003 – was largely a response to the Iraq War and it sought to mend transatlantic divisions while also expressing Europe’s desire to act autonomously in the world. Times have changed. Today’s global strategy has a simpler yet more powerful message: Europe needs to protect and promote the interests of European citizens. 

The Mediterranean features prominently in the ‘Global Strategy’: this is no surprise given that the author of the document is an Italian. Yes, the region is presently marked by turmoil but the EU plans to address issues such as border security, trafficking and counter-terrorism with partners in North Africa. Given Malta’s geographical proximity to Africa and its economic interests in the region, Malta should consider integrating the key messages of the ‘Global Strategy’ into its presidency programme.

During this year’s Dutch presidency good progress was made on ensuring that Europeans take on greater responsibility for their security. Being a proud maritime nation, the Netherlands made a compellingly strong and pertinent case for Europe to prioritise maritime security and border management. Malta shares these same interests. 

Irregular migration and Europe’s border management are of vital importance to Malta’s national security. Accordingly, Malta’s EU presidency could be used as a vehicle to engage with and promote interesting initiatives such as the ‘European Border and Coast Guard’, which was recently proposed by the European Commission. 

Furthermore, some readers may be unaware of the fact that an EU naval operation is currently taking place off the coast of Libya and not far from Maltese waters. Malta has a vested interest in lending its political support for such operations, especially as the UK’s Royal Navy is playing a lead role. What might happen to such military operations after Brexit remains to be seen. This is just one of the many issues Malta has to tackle during its presidency.    

With a view to continuing the momentum after Slovakia’s presidency, Malta should not shy-away from calling for greater European cooperation on security and defence. Malta might be neutral but in a way this gives it a certain moral authority other European nations lack. Malta’s geography also lends weight to any positive agenda the country puts forward for the security of all European citizens. 

Daniel Fiott is a doctoral researcher at the Institute for European Studies, Free University of Brussels (VUB), and a fellow of the Research Foundation – Flanders

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