European elections crucial to curb far right surge

Prominent academic Prof. Godfrey Pirotta views the rise of far-right populism as the EU's most pressing issue, while also cautioning against the bloc transforming into a military alliance.

The upcoming European elections are crucial because significant inroads by the extremists on the right – associated with fascist and populist tendencies – would pose a danger to freedom, democracy, and European values, says respected academic Prof. Godfrey Pirotta, who sees the surge in far-right populism as the most significant challenge facing the European Union today.

“Most of the far right parties ultimately want to see the EU fail, and with a strong presence in the European Parliament they will work to make the EU ineffective instead of strengthening it,” he warned in a conversation with The Journal editor Sandro Mangion during ‘Kafè Ewropa’, One Radio’s weekly European elections talk show. “We have seen what is happening in Hungary and Slovakia, what happened before in Poland, and what can happen in France, Germany, and other countries where the far right is gaining ground. These developments are of serious concern to us, as they will determine what Europe we will be living in.”

The far right tends to inculpate those who don’t share the same background as its followers, such as migrants and vulnerable communities. Their actions, including hate speech and fearmongering, aim to create cultural rifts. Their approach within the European Parliament often lacks concrete solutions for policy and EU law, as they work against progress. They are often absent in the job and prefer to shout from the sidelines.

Last week the Party of European Socialists (PES), of which the Maltese Labour Party is a member, declared it will not work with far-right forces in the next European Parliament. This political declaration, made by the Socialists’ Spitzenkandidat (top candidate) for the June election Nicolas Schmit, was a jibe at their conservative rivals, after the European People’s Party (EPP), with which the Maltese Nationalist Party is affiliated, opened its door to some right-wing parties. The EPP’s top candidate, Ursula von der Leyen, who is running for a second term as European Commission President, has suggested she would be willing to deal with the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, which includes members such as Italy’s right-wing Brothers of Italy and Poland’s nationalist Law and Justice party, which has clashed with Brussels on the issue of rule of law.

20 years since the largest enlargement

On Saturday, 8th June, Malta heads to the polls to elect its six members of the European Parliament, out of a total of 720 respresenting a total EU population of around 450 million people. The European elections will take place in the 27 EU member states, and around 366 million EU citizens will be called to the polling stations in what is being defined, also by the European Parliament itself, as a “crucial moment in EU democracy”.

This will be the fifth such election to be held in Malta since the country joined the EU in 2004, as part of the bloc’s largest enlargement which saw the intake of ten new member states. Prof. Pirotta argued two decades ago that the EU’s enlargement process was rushed. A more gradual approach, he believes, would have allowed certain candidate countries more time to prepare for accession. He advocated for a more selective approach, where countries would only join when they were truly ready for the challenges and responsibilities of EU membership, as he worried that admitting unprepared countries would become a burden on the European Project while placing undue financial pressures on other member states. Prof. Pirotta pointed out that German reunification, just a few years before the 2004 enlargement, had placed a heavy burden on Europe’s largest economy. The economic integration of East and West Germany, he noted, proved so demanding that disparities in development and living standards persist even today.

Prof. Godfrey Pirotta was ‘The Journal’ editor Sandro Mangion’s guest on ONE’s weekly European election talk show, ‘Kafè Ewropa’.

Malta’s historical dependence

But what about Malta? Prof. Pirotta frames the country’s EU membership within the perspective of Malta’s historical reliance on external support due to its small size. He emphasises that, while interdependence is a global reality, Malta’s case is more pronounced.  He referred to the times of the Knights of St John, highlighting how it was their foreign wealth that fueled Maltese prosperity.  While independence from the British was crucial, it was ultimately a means to manage these external dependencies on Malta’s own terms, he said.

Prof. Pirotta noted the differing stances, two decades ago, of the governing Nationalist Party and the Labour Party in Opposition regarding Malta’s EU relationship. While both parties desired closer ties with the EU, their motivations diverged. The Nationalists focused on the political and cultural aspects, emphasizing Malta’s European identity. Conversely, Labour prioritised exploiting relations with the bloc to better manage Malta’s economic dependence.

Expressing pride in Malta’s strong democratic tradition, he highlighted how, after the public voted on EU membership, all parties eventually respected the outcome and collaborated to translate it into tangible benefits for the country. These benefits include substantial EU funding that has significantly improved Malta’s infrastructure and empowered non-governmental organisations.

There are also, however, challenges associated with being a small member state. Malta’s size can sometimes put it at a disadvantage within the EU’s decision-making processes.  However, influence isn’t solely about numbers.  Malta’s success hinges on the effectiveness of its representatives, Prof. Pirotta remarks. This effectiveness depends on their performance in both the Council and Parliament.  In the European Parliament, for example, the political groups Maltese MEPs will form part of and their contributions within those groups will significantly impact their ability to advocate for the Maltese people’s interests. Still, retains faith in the Council’s importance, emphasising its role as a forum where national representatives, with deep understanding of their countries’ specific challenges, come together to find solutions.

Prof. Pirotta emphasised that democracy, a core value of both the EU and its member states,  does not equate to absolute majority rule.  While majority vote is a key mechanism, a democratic system also ensures space for minorities to contribute ideas and exercise their rights.  Therefore, in the EU context, established agreements reached with Malta during accession negotiations cannot be unilaterally altered by a majority vote.

Morphing into a military union a mistake

This argument steered the discussion into the issue of the European Union’s current focus on strengthening its capabilities in security and defence. It would be a mistake if this leads the bloc to morph into a full-fletched military union, Prof. Pirotta cautions.

He pointed out that many forget that, out of the 27 EU member states, 23 are also members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). With regard to the remaining four, while Malta, Austria, and Ireland are militarily neutral, Cyprus cannot join NATO until the current division of the island between the Greek Cypriot south and the Turkish Cypriot north is resolved. Turkey has historically used its veto power to block any attempt by Cyprus to join NATO or even its programme called the Partnership for Peace (PfP). Two previously neutral EU member states, Finland and Sweden, decided to abandon their neutrality following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

“The majority of EU member states, that are already in NATO, can seamlessly continue their military cooperation through that established alliance. This avoids placing a new financial strain on defence for neutral members and potentially creating a conflict for them as they struggle to uphold neutrality while being part of the EU,” said the Professor Emeritus of Government and Policy Studies, researcher, historian and writer, non-resident ambassador of Malta to Czechia, and social activist.

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