After Malta’s migration hardball failed to move EU, diplomat takes the fall

Permanent Representative failed to gain pledges from EU states to take in migrants but Maltese pushback brought bad faith inside Brussels

Ambassador Daniel Azzopardi. Photo: Ray Attard
Ambassador Daniel Azzopardi. Photo: Ray Attard

Malta’s top diplomat in Brussels took the fall and lost his post as permanent representative to the European Union after failing to win over his counterparts to convince them to share the responsibility of 425 migrants rescued at sea by the Maltese.

Daniel Azzopardi will now be Malta’s ambassador in Spain, while his predecessor, Marlene Bonnici, will return to her Brussels posting as permanent representative after spending the last two years as ambassador in Germany.

Sources who spoke to MaltaToday said Azzopardi had failed to nurture the necessary level of diplomatic influence with EU member states to convince them to pledge for the migrants rescued at sea by Malta during the coronavirus pandemic, when it shut its ports to asylum seekers.

But the same source said Azzopardi faced an uphill struggle, after Malta’s initial strategy to charter a private boat to push back a group of migrants to Libya, which resulted in seven people dead and missing on arrival, showed bad faith from the Maltese side.

“He never stood a chance after the pushback. Malta lost the moral high ground. Many of the previous ad hoc relocations had been brokered by Joseph Muscat himself, whose network in Europe was excellent, built through years of experience in Brussels as an MEP and then as prime minister. Azzopardi did not have that so he could not replicate what Muscat did.”

Additionally, Malta’s clout in the EU has taken a hit after the political crisis of December 2019, when the arrest of Tumas magnate Yorgen Fenech prompted the resignations of Joseph Muscat’s chief of staff Keith Schembri and shortly after of Muscat himself, as top brass in the Labour government became implicated in the Daphne Caruana Galizia assassination.

“Certain EU countries don’t look at us with favour in the first place… which means this was an uphill struggle. You cannot win all these battles. Sometimes you have to give in to slowly build trust and good faith,” the source said.

Azzopardi was formerly the Chief Executive Officer of the Malta Energy and Water Agency, during the ministerial tenure of Konrad Mizzi. His technical competence was recognised by the Muscat administration earlier on while working as a technical attaché on energy and land transport within the Permanent Representation to the EU, between 2009 and 2016.

The return of Marlene Bonnici in the driving seat as Malta’s permanent representative will be a return to form for the diplomat, even though insiders have in the past resented her management style.

Bonnici already served in the role of envoy in Brussels between 2012 and 2018. She is one of Malta’s longest serving diplomats and a senior public servant, having also occupied the role of permanent secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister during the Gonzi administration.

Peter Agius, a former Nationalist Party candidate for MEP, said Azzopardi’s dismissal showed any Maltese representative will find a difficult road ahead due to the damage caused [to Malta’s reputation] by the government, “including that related to the sale of passports, and the justice which has been denied in the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder cases and the fact that government members have been obscenely implicated in it.”

Agius said this highlighted the importance of clearing Malta’s name. “The government can change as many EU permanent representatives as it had changed police commissioners, but, with the way it behaves, results will continue being scarce – and it will be [the people] who suffer, because they need Europe to be understanding when it comes to issues including migration and EU funds.”

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