Towards a Maltese presidency of the EU Council

Malta's presidency of the EU council is a real chance for the country to leave its mark on the union

Malta's Deputy Permanent Representative to the EU, Neil Kerr (right)
Malta's Deputy Permanent Representative to the EU, Neil Kerr (right)

With the EU plunged headfirst into an existential crisis following the Brexit vote, the reins of its presidency are set to pass into Malta’s hands for the first time. 

And as Malta’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the EU, Neil Kerr, explains, the rotating presidency is not tokenism but a real chance for a country to leave its mark on the union. 

“Personally, I don’t want the Maltese presidency to be remembered based on how many files we managed to close, but on how we conducted our business,” Kerr told MaltaToday. “I want us to be remembered as gentlemen, as a country that constantly strives for compromise without backstabbing any member state or leaving any country in the dark. 

“As a small member state, Malta has an advantage in that it can identify with and sympathise with the individual needs of member states. We want to give a human dimension to the presidency, and if some legislation requires some countries to get the short end of the stick, we’ll seek to make the pill as palatable as possible to swallow.”

As president of the Council of the EU, Malta will be required to chair Council meetings at ministerial, committee and working group level. Some 1,000 meetings are expected to be held between January and June next year, out of which some 200 will be held in Malta. Those at ministerial level will all be held at the Grandmaster’s Palace in Valletta. All the meetings in Malta will be informal ones to decide on policy direction, while decisions will be taken in Brussels. 

As Deputy Permanent Representative, Neil Kerr will chair meetings of COREPER I, the committee that coordinates the work for ministerial councils, mainly on issues related to social policy, employment, health, telecommunications, transport, competitiveness, energy, education, the environment and agriculture. 

COREPER II, which deals with financial and political issues, will be chaired by the Permanent Representative to the EU, Marlene Bonnici. 

“At COREPER (the Committee of Permanent Representatives), we prepare the work for the Ministerial Councils after the necessary preparatory work would have been conducted at the working group level. Effectively we provide the link between the technical and the political,” Kerr said. 

The Council of the EU has some 150 technical working groups and committees, each highly specialized and focused on a specific area of policy. Between January and June, these will also all be chaired by Maltese representatives.

“They have been trained in aspects such as EU processes and diplomatic skills in view of the EU presidency,” Kerr said. “The Presidency required new operational methods which reflect a genuine bottom-up system, through which staff are capable of taking decisions without requiring constant directions.” 

Chairpersons of ministerial councils, COREPER and working groups are tasked with preparing policy agenda and ensuring compromise is reached among all member states.  However, Kerr warned that Malta cannot hope to take advantage of its chair to drive forward policies that are solely in its national interest and shelve those that aren’t. 

“We have made it clear to all involved that they must distinguish between national and presidential priorities. We’ll be serving as president of a European institution and won’t ride roughshod. 

“Malta is not a trouble-maker in the EU and indeed is often viewed at as an honest broker.” 

Malta’s six-month work programme for the presidency is currently being drafted and is expected to be completed by November. It will follow in the footsteps of its trio partners (The Netherlands and Slovakia), who in an 18-month programme had collectively highlighted job creation, trade deals, an energy union, migration and refugees, and terrorism as key challenges. 

Kerr predicted that Malta will be particularly overloaded with work during its EU presidency. Key EU legislation that will be discussed earlier next year includes the formation of a digital single market, an energy union to ensure continent-wide clean energy, and a Labour Mobility Package intended to tackle both unemployment and skills shortages. Its presidency will also coincide with the abolition for good of mobile roaming charges across the EU. 

“Previous presidencies faced problems in that there was a dearth of things to discuss, but Malta won’t have that problem… several polices that have long been on the table will be launched next year,” Kerr said.

‘No reputational problems for Malta at a technical level’

The Opposition has warned that Malta’s reliability will be dealt a hammer blow if it enters the EU presidency with Konrad Mizzi as its de facto energy minister. Mizzi, and the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri, were named as owners of offshore companies in the Panama Papers leaks. 

Two MEPs have also warned that Manfred Galdes’ recent resignation as director of the Financial Information Analysis Unit has cast a shadow on Malta’s willingness to push forward anti-graft legislation in its upcoming presidency. However, when asked, Kerr admitted that he hasn’t felt any apprehension at technical level at the prospect of a Maltese presidency. 

“It is not in my remit as Malta’s representative on COREPER I to discuss issues related to politics and finances, but at a technical level I haven’t sensed any negative vibe towards Malta as a result of the Panama Papers,” he said. 

He also played down any expectations of drama when Malta’s ministers face the European Parliament for questioning at the start of its presidency. 

“It is a process through which the Presidency of the Council of the EU pays courtesy to the European Parliament by directly presenting its priorities for its tenure,” he said. “They will not be interviewed for a position and as such will not be obliged to answer any questions of a national or personal nature. MEPs are aware that this would not be the appropriate forum to address those sort of questions.”