Updated | Abela in hour-long talks with US defence secretary at Castille over SOFA

Malta is under pressure over special status for American servicemen as US defence secretary meets the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo and National Security Minister Byron Camilleri at Castille

American defence secretary Mark Esper exiting Castille (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
American defence secretary Mark Esper exiting Castille (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

Updated at 4:07pm with official joint statement

Prime Minister Robert Abela held an hour-long meeting with US Defence Secretary Mark Esper at Castille this morning to discuss a Status of Forces Agreement.

Accompanied by a heavy but non-intrusive security detail, this was Esper's maiden voyage to Malta as Secretary of Defence.

The meeting began at 8am. Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo was the first to leave the meeting an hour later, followed shortly by Esper.

Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo exiting Castille after attending talks with American defence secretary (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo exiting Castille after attending talks with American defence secretary (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Esper signing the guest book at Castille as Robert Abela looks on
Esper signing the guest book at Castille as Robert Abela looks on

National Security Minister Byron Camilleri was seen leaving Castille almost 45 minutes after Esper.

Journalists were only allowed a photo opportunity inside Castille and Esper took no comments when exiting the Prime Minister's office.

A joint official statement released by the Department of Information in the afternoon made no reference to SOFA but spoke of cooperation between the Armed Forces of Malta and the US military.

"During the meeting, Prime Minister Abela and US Secretary of State Mark T. Esper discussed a number of issues including bilateral relations and how this relationship can be further strengthened. Discussions also focused on migration challenges," the statement read.

It added that the US military will provide "formative and technical training" to Maltese soldiers, including with the Special Operations Unit.

SOFA and Moneyval

The visit comes amid reports that Malta and the US are in talks to establish a SOFA. Government sources told this newspaper last Sunday that SOFA and immigration were the two main topics on the agenda.

The US has long wanted a SOFA with Malta, with Americans reportedly insisting on "concurrent criminal jurisdiction" system between American and Maltese courts when dealing with US servicemen.

Malta has until now resisted such an agreement, but reports that the SOFA will help ensure American support during the upcoming Moneyval assessment might put the agreement on the negotiating table.

Yesterday, Abela denied any link between a potential SOFA and Moneyval, but did not comment on whether Cabinet already agreed to a SOFA deal.

The Foreign Ministry only denied the existence of an agreement 12 hours later, saying "Malta is no closer to signing an agreement with the US or NATO than over the past years."

In an early-morning Facebook post Bartolo said the government would not sign an agreement which compromised the neutrality and sovereignty of Malta.

Il-jum it-tajjeb. Dan l-ahhar dehru rapporti li bhala gvern lesti niffirmaw il-Partnership for Peace (PfP) Status of...

Posted by Evarist Bartolo on Tuesday, September 29, 2020

He made it clear that it should be Malta’s prerogative whether a person who breaks the law in Malta is tried in Malta or in his home country.

“It has taken us a long time to become an independent and neutral republic, with no foreign military bases and no military alliance. For the good of the country we must continue to remain so,” he said.

News of an impending SOFA was not well-received. Former Labour prime minister Alfred Sant yesterday made it clear he was against a SOFA, and Opposition leader Adrian Delia insisted that Malta should not cede any sovereignty.

Delia said the Opposition was not consulted by the government on a possible deal with the Americans that could have constitutional implications.

Sources close to the Maltese government have told MaltaToday that Malta may have to acquiesce to American demands for a SOFA in return for support at the Financial Action Task Force on the Moneyval test.

But the ambiguous public position adopted by Maltese government exponents is a reflection of the controversial nature of a SOFA, which grants US authorities criminal jurisdiction on deeds committed by American military personnel in the host country.

Government also received flak from leftist pressure group Graffitti that argued a SOFA would be humiliating for the country. The AD/PD alliance also criticised the government on the matter.

Deal requires parliamentary approval

According to former foreign minister Tonio Borg the treaty would have to be approved by parliament.

Borg told MaltaToday that given the issue of criminal jurisdiction touches on sovereignty issues, according to the Ratification of Treaties Act, a SOFA would require parliamentary approval.

A simple majority would suffice but the treaty may have to be accompanied by a separate act of law that allows it to supersede the Criminal Code in instances involving crimes committed by US military personnel on Maltese territory.

READ MORE: How America looks out for its military personnel abroad