Our greatest challenge in 2017

The EU presidency therefore represents a unique opportunity to finally exorcise a traditional inferiority complex that has dogged our country since Colonial times. Too much hinges on its success to be derailed by our equally traditional political divide

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

As Malta is set to take over the rotating presidency of the European Union this month, there can be no doubt that our country faces its strictest ‘test’ since EU accession in 2004.

Then as now, questions were asked about Malta’s capability to undertake this enormous responsibility, given our size and limited resources. The Commission has repeatedly expressed optimism, and the Maltese government has always publicly exuded confidence. The likelihood, however, is that these outer displays of bravado conceal a deep-rooted uncertainty on both sides.

The EU presidency therefore represents a unique opportunity to finally exorcise a traditional inferiority complex that has dogged our country since Colonial times. Too much hinges on its success to be derailed by our equally traditional political divide.

Even without existing doubts about logistics, Malta’s long-awaited opportunity comes at a critical time for the European Union as a whole. The EU is currently beset by uncertainty from all directions. The shockwaves of Brexit can still be felt in the resurgence of an extreme right across many EU states. The financial crisis of 2008 still lingers in Greece and other southern Eurozone countries. And the Commission itself has arguably been plunged into a crisis over divisions in European migration policy. 

Home Affairs minister Carmelo Abela has a tall order before him. It will be his job to attempt to forge a deal between all the bloc’s 28 member states on reforming the maligned ‘Dublin system’ – a regulation notorious for its shortcomings in major crises.

Dublin poses a particular problem for a country like tiny Malta, but also for Mediterranean states like Italy, Greece and Spain. But it has the support of northern countries whose experience of migration is very different from ours. Abela’s role as an honest broker for the whole of the EU is therefore fraught with obstacles.

This is one of the substantial drawbacks of the European Union. The Commission can be quick to punish errant countries whose deficits are higher than 3% of their GDP. But when it comes to creating a common and fair asylum system, there are times when 28 different yardsticks, and expectations, can apply.

Abela’s goal for the next six months will be to hammer out an understanding on the Dublin reform. It is easier said than done: much of the background work is done by technical officers in Malta and in Brussels, and then they have to negotiate with a delegation from the European Parliament, before going back to the Council to further come out with a common text.

But the Maltese minister also faces another challenge, this time coming from a surge of the hard and far right that is set to influence mainstream politicians by seeking to ride a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment. France and Germany have elections this year: the former will certainly see the Front National’s Marine Le Pen in the final run-off, while in the latter Angela Merkel is set to pay the consequences of her open-door policy as far-right groupings like AfD are set to influence the political agenda.

That makes the business of seeking cooperation on a common text for the Dublin regulation’s reform even harder.

Meanwhile, the climate inside the EU is itself gloomy. Although all EU member states pledged to take in migrants from Greece and Italy under the solidarity mechanism over a two-year period, Abela is the first to admit to the lack of enthusiasm among certain member states.

In 2015, home affairs ministers agreed to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers from Italy and Greece, to assist the two countries in dealing with the pressures of the refugee crisis. Malta has so far taken 70 from its pledge of 131. Austria, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia have taken few or none. France and the Netherlands offered to take fewer people than the number they had agreed to under the relocation scheme.

Indeed the V4 states are fighting the European Commission’s relocation mechanism in the European Court of Justice, after they were outvoted in the EU council in September 2015 on the second relocation scheme. Rising anti-refugee sentiment will undermine the commitment of countries to take this flexible arrangement further.

In June, Abela will be tasked to take full stock of the ad hoc Solidarity Mechanism. For the largest economic bloc in the world, forcing member states to live by their pledges to take in Syrian refugees should be a simple task. But the political sensitivity on the issue of migration across Europe – Abela himself told an Italian parliamentary committee this year that there was little appetite for solidarity – means the EU’s refugee policy will be muddling around for some form of agreement on a watered-down proposal.

All the same, despite the many obstacles, Malta’s presidency also presents opportunities. Under both Nationalist and Labour administrations, Malta has often complained about the asylum regulations, and both should therefore welcome the chance of putting our national interest at the heart of EU policy.

For this to succeed, the two parties need to put aside their other differences and unite to present a common front, for at least the duration of Malta’s presidency.

That, ultimately, is the biggest challenge our country faces in 2017.