Alfred Sant warns of “tricky situation” ahead

“The way things are going presents a challenge for Malta, which aims to maintain its stance as a neutral country while being part of an increasingly militarised EU,” the former Prime Minister and Labour leader told The Journal.

The European Union’s current trajectory is taking the bloc towards a position favouring the establishment of a European army, claims the head of the Maltese delegation in the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament, Alfred Sant. Malta could eventually find itself in a tricky situation as the departure from the existent common security and defence policy, which is fundamentally based on intergovernmental cooperation, and the idea to create an EU military alliance gain traction, he warned.

“The way things are going presents a challenge for Malta, which aims to maintain its stance as a military neutral country while being part of an increasingly militarised EU,” the former Prime Minister and Labour leader told The Journal in a conversation held last week on the margins of the EP’s antepenultimate plenary session before the June European elections.

Photo: Eric VIDAL / European Union

MEPs discuss strengthening European defence

Last week’s plenary session in Strasbourg saw MEPs debate on strengthening European defence. Addressing the European legislators, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen stressed that ongoing geopolitical tensions require “a new European defence mindset from institutions to industries to investors”. She expressed her belief in the importance of having a Defence Commissioner in the next administration to provide the European defence industry with the support it needs.

 “The risks of war should not be overblown, but they should be prepared for. And that starts with the urgent need to rebuild, replenish, and modernise member states’ armed forces,” said von der Leyen. To strengthen its defence capabilities, the EU will be focusing on research and development of new technologies. “Europe should strive to develop and manufacture the next generation of battle-winning operational capabilities,” she said. “That means turbo charging our defence industrial capacity in the next five years.”

Photo: Eric VIDAL / European Union

During the debate, rapporteur MEP Sven Mikser (S&D, Estonia) said that “the EU must assert itself as a resilient and cohesive security entity, capable of safeguarding its member states and supporting those facing aggression. Along with its member states, the EU must allocate sufficient resources towards our collective security and defence, while also ensuring necessary institutional frameworks are established to effectively address crises in its vicinity.”

This is not the first time that the EU member states have come together in a bid to boost the cotinent’s military and defence preparedness. After World War II an attempt was made to establish a European Defence Community (EDC) with a supranational European army. Signed in 1952 by six Western European countries (France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands), the treaty was ultimately never ratified due to various political and nationalistic opposition, primarily from the French National Assembly.

Planned distribution of divisions published by Time magazine in 1952

Down to three

Until recently, five of the 27 European Union countries adhered to a neutral position. However, Finland and Sweden have recently abandoned their neutrality and decided to join NATO in response to the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. That leaves Malta, Ireland, and Austria as the only three EU member states to hold on to their policy of neutrality.

Alfred Sant points out that the concept of neutrality is complex and evolving, and the interpretation of each country’s stances can vary depending on the specific context and historical background. He acknowledged the potential for difficulties in balancing Malta’s specific understanding of neutrality with the EU’s developing defense strategy.

Dr Sant identifies Russia’s aggression in Ukraine as the key factor prompting the current response from the EU with regard to defence. The response is also likely influenced by the fact that US President Joe Biden prioritises the Pacific region over trans-Atlantic cooperation, further compounded by tensions arising from Donald Trump’s antics vis-à-vis NATO and Putin.

Dr Sant explained that, as long as the UK was in the EU, other Member States kept a step back on the idea of a military alliance since Britain supported increased EU cooperation on defence and security matters but emphasised the primacy of NATO. However, after the UK’s departure, things started changing regarding issues such as the granting of EU funding for the European arms industry. Pressure is also mounting for a policy change so that funds from the European Investment Bank (EIB), which as things stand cannot invest in military activities, can be used for dual-use technologies and equipment. Dual-use items are goods, software, and technology that can be used for both civilian and military applications.

Given the emerging threats, aren’t European countries justified in seeking to be prepared for all eventualities? “EU member states interested in deeper defence cooperation have every right to go ahead and can certainly pursue that goal by establishing a separate structure outside the EU framework,” Dr Sant replies. Yet, it is clear that the EU is not choosing to go that way.

Things will “get more serious”

The pressure to conform will not be easy to withstand, he warns. As an example, he mentioned the Maltese government’s decision to accept to deploy an army officer to form part of the EU’s Red Sea mission called Operation Aspides to defend commercial ships from Houthi attacks. Despite the justification that vessels registered under the Maltese flag have been attacked, the decision still effectively means that Malta has become part of a military alliance, he believes. Describing this as only a “small thing” on which Malta has given in to pressure, he has no doubt that things will “get more serious”, as pressure keeps mounting for the EU to evolve into a military alliance financed by the Union’s common funds. Despite Malta’s neutral stance, it is hard to ensure that Maltese funds will not be channeled for this purpose, he said.

Redefining our neutrality?

All things considered, is our military neutrality so indispensable to hold on to in this changing geopolitical landscape? Alfred Sant is quick to reply that Malta’s neutrality remains, indeed, very valid and important. He points out how Malta’s position as a small island in the middle of the Mediterranean and on the periphery of Europe has meant that it has over the centuries served as a fortress and observation post, even in the recent past. He referred to when, during the Libyan civil war of 2011, the Maltese government allowed Maltese territory to be used to attack Libya and for foreign powers to carry our surveillance operations; a decision which he descrives as a big mistake of the Gonzi administration. What we need to work for is a situation where no country would even contemplate aggression against Malta, he said.

He stressed that being a neutral country does not mean that Malta is not concerned with what happens in the region and around the world and that it does not take positions. “Even when it comes to war, as a neutral country we do accept military interventions when they are sanctioned by the United Nations. Switzerland, another neutral country, has taken a position with regard to Ukraine which is similar to ours,” he noted.

But can Malta redefine the neutrality clauses in the Constitution, or the way it interprets neutrality officially? He does agree that updates could be considered, given how the international situation has evolved since the clauses were introduced in the 1980s. For instance, the Constitution refers to “the two superpowers” (the USA and the USSR), a situation that existed during the Cold War. However, that is just a detail, Dr Sant says. The biggest challenge would be how to update our Constitution when Malta is bound by Treaties it signed when it joined a bloc which is now moving towards becoming a security and defence alliance. “The question is: how can our neutrality be safeguarded in the context of our EU membership?” he asks, undoubtedly having in mind issues such as the principle of the primacy of EU Law, which is based on the idea that where a conflict arises between an aspect of EU law and an aspect of law in an EU Member State, EU law will prevail.

Dr Sant believes that the right time for this dilemma to be addressed is under a Labour government, since generally speaking the Labour Party cherishes the value of neutrality more than the Nationalist Party – though he remarks that even the party he used to lead isn’t the same on this issue anymore. He said that, although it was a Labour government that pushed for neutrality to be entrenched in the Constitution in the 1980s, it is wrong to associate the concept exclusively with Labour. There are many Nationalists who want Malta to remain a neutral country while, on the other hand, there are Labourites who are now questioning the country’s neutral stance.

Ex-leaders becoming MEPs

Alfred Sant has served as an MEP since 2014, after having led the Malta Labour Party between 1992 and 2008. He has now decided not to contest this year’s European elections to “make room” for others.

Though he himself transitioned from party leader to a position as an MEP, the former leader declined to weigh in on the current public discussion surrounding the possibility of his successor, Joseph Muscat, following in his footsteps. With a laconic “I don’t comment on such things”, he opted to leave the question unanswered.

Main photo: Bumble Dee/Shutterstock

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