Neutrality needs to be debated, not discarded

Neither should we forget that NATO membership would entail further erosion of sovereignty: particularly in the shape of SOFA agreements limiting our power to prosecute foreign troops based in Malta

IRONICALLY, the Ukraine crisis - which Russia blames on NATO expansion into its borders - may well result in yet further NATO expansion in Europe.

For the brutal Russian invasion has had one major unintended consequence: that of triggering a debate on NATO membership in Finland and Sweden, two countries which – alongside Malta, Austria and Ireland - are constitutionally neutral; but also bound by a common European foreign policy.

Inevitably, then, any decision by Sweden and Finland to join NATO will reverberate on the other three neutral EU countries: Malta included. As things stand – and despite our neutral status - Malta is still bound by collective decisions taken at EU level. These include sanctions against Russia, which earned us a place among Putin’s list of ‘unfriendly nations’.

But Malta’s only real security guarantee comes from the mutual defence clause included in the Lisbon treaty. Under Article 42 (7), EU countries are obliged to assist a fellow member state that has become “a victim of armed aggression on its territory”.

In the absence of any formal EU army, however, no formal procedure has been set out thus far; and the article itself does not specify that the assistance should be military in nature, either.

In this sense, Turkey - which is not imposing EU-mandated sanctions on Russia - enjoys a stronger security guarantee in case of attack, thanks to its membership in NATO (which considers an attack on one member, as an attack on all members alike).

Clearly, then, there is room for a mature discussion about the local security concerns raised by this war. But while it is timely to review our foreign policy and defence requirements, one should be wary of rash decisions; and especially, of comparisons with Finland and Sweden (which, unlike Malta, face a more imminent threat: Finland itself having been a victim of Soviet aggression before World War II.)

Neither should we dismiss the value of our own neutrality: which enabled the country to evolve from a fortress economy, reliant on British military spending, into a modern diversified economy, which benefits from friendly relations and trade with most countries of the world.

It is not surprising that a recent survey, conducted before the current war, found that two in three support Malta’s neutrality. It has, after all, stood the country in good stead for the past 30 years.

Meanwhile, our “active” neutrality does not preclude us from taking sides, when basic tenets of international law are trampled upon: as is now happening in Ukraine. And if the wording of the neutrality clause remains anachronistic, in that is still refers to ‘two superpowers’ (the extinct Soviet Union and the USA), the preclusion of a permanent military base, which can be used against other countries, remains a foundation-stone of Maltese neutrality.

Neither should we forget that NATO membership would entail further erosion of sovereignty: particularly in the shape of SOFA agreements limiting our power to prosecute foreign troops based in Malta.

Still, we cannot ignore the risks posed by the current scenario. While Russia’s nuclear threats may be dismissed as scare tactics, few would have foreseen Putin launching a full scale invasion of Ukraine a few months ago. And if the situation escalates any further, Malta may well find itself exposed: especially if Russia tries to destabilize Libya, where the Wagner Group - a shadowy paramilitary organisation tied to the Kremlin - has already played a significant role, by supporting renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) in the country’s civil war.

In brief: though it remains extremely unlikely that Malta would ever be a direct target, militarily it remains one of the most vulnerable EU member states.

In this context, Malta’s situation is more akin with Ireland’s - a neutral EU member state, which unlike Finland and Sweden does not share a border with Russia. In Ireland, support for neutrality has remained strong: as strong, in fact, as that country’s condemnation of the Russian invasion.

Yet the current war has also led to introspection: with Foreign Minister Simon Coveney saying that the invasion should be a “catalyst” for an “honest rethink” about Ireland’s security and defence policies; and President Michael D Higgins calling for an “informed and respectful” debate on the future of Irish neutrality.

Rather than ditching neutrality altogether, Taoiseach Micheál Martin suggested that neutrality needs to ‘evolve’: “The world has changed and Ire- land must respond. We cannot sit still and simply hope that we are left alone.”

In this context, it is timely for the Maltese government to conduct a review of Malta’s defence requirements in the face of different threats: not just on a military level, but also cyber threats, which can have a devastating impact on our economy and banking system.

The review could also include the vulnerabilities in our energy policy, in view of Chinese and Azeri ownership of our power stations; and also because energy prices (and supply) may be affected by the Ukraine crisis, as well as tensions over Taiwan.

As such, the appointment of a parliamentary committee, entrusted with this defence and foreign policy review, would be a step in the direct direction.