Malta’s future within the EU: walking a tightrope

Foreign Minister Ian Borg on balancing Malta’s military neutrality with EU solidarity in a time of crisis.

Two decades after Malta joined the European Union, a new generation of Maltese has grown up entirely within the bloc. The controversial debate surrounding Malta’s membership is a thing of the past, with overwhelming public support reflecting this shift. In fact, Eurobarometer reports a remarkable 92% of Maltese believing EU membership has been beneficial for the country.

Since EU accession in 2004, successive Maltese administrations have successfully navigated the opportunities and challenges of membership. However, the Union itself has undergone significant changes over the years, presenting new realities and issues for Malta to address.

As Malta marks the 20th anniversary of its membership in the European Project, The Journal editor Sandro Mangion had a conversation with Ian Borg, Minister for Foreign and European Affairs and Trade, during this week’s  edition of Kafè Ewropa, One Radio’s weekly European election talk show.

▪️ The Journal: As Malta, the EU’s smallest member state, continues to grow alongside a potentially expanding Union, how can a lasting sense of shared purpose be ensured?

Minister Ian Borg: I believe in being upfront: navigating our future within the EU will become increasingly difficult. Upholding our foreign policy – based on the principles that the Maltese cherish, such as our military neutrality – while remaining supportive of the European project presents a constant tightrope.

Over the past two years, in the face of the Russian Federation’s war in Ukraine, Malta has played a constructive role. Our positions have been appreciated by our European partners, and this has contributed to the EU’s unity. The current geopolitical climate has fueled discussions among key EU leaders about the need for a stronger European defense capability. This could involve the creation of a dedicated EU army or a significant increase in investment in existing joint military structures alongside trans-Atlantic partners within NATO.

We are aware that the development of a stronger EU defense capability is likely to continue, regardless of the preferences of a few individual member states. Finding a path forward hinges on mutual understanding. Malta’s commitment to neutrality must be respected by its partners and, in turn, Malta should not be the one to block its partners from moving forward as long as their efforts do not impinge upon its own principles.

Malta demonstrates its commitment to peace within the EU and in collaboration with NATO by actively engaging in peacebuilding initiatives. We seek constructive solutions and bridge-building efforts to resolve conflicts, while maintaining a clear distinction from military involvement. Our EU partners recognise that Malta remains engaged in the continent’s challenges, even with our principle of neutrality. In return, we trust they understand our selective participation based on this principle. By fostering this mutual respect, we can continue to ensure a successful EU membership for Malta.

Malta’s EU membership has demonstrably fueled significant economic and social progress over the past two decades. However, Europe now stands at a crossroads, presenting both opportunities and challenges for the future. 2024 promises to be a year of major shifts, holding several elections and pivotal events that could reshape the trajectory of Europe and the international landscape. Who will be at the helm of the European Commission, the European Council, and the European Parliament after the June European elections and what approaches they will adopt are crucial questions for the future of the bloc. The same applies to November’s US Presidential election in November. Elections will also be held in the UK, but it seems unlikely that Britain’s foreign policy will change if Labour wins.

We must wait and see. Excessive reliance on pre-election rhetoric is unwise, as circumstances can force elected officials to act differently than they initially proposed. For instance, when Donald Trump served as the 45th President of the US, he was the one who approved the sale of American defensive lethal weapons to Ukraine. Therefore, it could be that, should he be returned to the White House, he might act differently to what he is stating on the campaing trail.

Minister Ian Borg discussing Malta’s future as an EU member state on ‘Kafè Ewropa’. Photo: Mark Doneo

▪️ The Journal: Talking about Malta’s constitutional commitment to neutrality, together with Austria and Ireland our country is one of a very small minority of EU countries that consider themselves militarily neutral. Due to EU membership, however, Malta’s foreign policy aligns more closely with the West as global situations evolve…

Minister Ian Borg: In 2003 the Maltese people made the choice to join the EU. Some citizens may still not fully understand what EU membership means. They might believe Malta can enjoy the advantages of the EU without being connected to the broader European and Western world…

▪️ The Journal: Despite Malta’s commitment to neutrality, some question whether elements of its foreign policy reflect that principle. For example, the Labour Party campaigned on withdrawing from NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) in the 1990s, but the current Labour government has continued participation. This policy change raises concerns among some about whether Malta’s neutrality is being fully upheld…

Minister Ian Borg: For clarity, the Labour Party shifted its stance on PfP membership while in Opposition in 2012 and, upon forming government in 2013, it continued PfP participation. It is inaccurate to suggest Malta joined PfP last year on Ian Borg’s watch. My distinction lies in informing Parliament, ensuring proper procedure. Labour previously criticised the 1998 PfP re-entry bypassing Parliament, something which I aimed to avoid.

Malta’s PfP membership dates to the 1998 Nationalist government. All subsequent Labour governments, including the current one, have supported continued participation. This policy reflects unanimous agreement from Government and Opposition MPs, along with legal counsel from the State Advocate confirming its alignment with our Constitution.

We remain committed to actively upholding our principles. For example, as OSCE Chair, I prioritised fostering dialogue in conflict zones. My visits to both Serbia and Kosovo, as well as talks with Moldova’s leadership and representatives of Transnistria, demonstrate this commitment. By engaging all sides, I believe we can build bridges and create conditions for peace. This focus on inclusivity also led Malta to offer hosting the Ukraine peace conference, an offer that was accepted.

Building trust requires evenhandedness. For instance, condeming both Hamas’ 7th October actions and the resulting civilian casualties in Gaza as a result of Israel’s disporportionate response establishes credibility. Consistency in this principled approach allows Malta to act as a bridge between parties, fostering dialogue.

▪️ The Journal: You recently stated that European affairs should be considered domestic, not foreign, policy. Won’t some national politicians see this suggestion as undermining their ability to claim credit for successes while deflecting blame for challenges on Brussels?

Minister Ian Borg: While focusing solely on short-term political gain on a national level might resonate with some citizens who aren’t yet familiar with how the EU works, it can be a missed opportunity. A growing segment of the Maltese population has only known Malta within the EU and are aware that representatives from all EU member states participate in ongoing discussions and votes that determine EU policy. We politicians must work together and build trust by focusing on solutions, rather than assigning blame.

It is true that individual member states may not have the sole power to veto EU decisions. However, the Labour government  has always believed in maintaining consistency between its national stance and its actions in the EU.

Main photo: Mark Doneo

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28 days ago

Well done, Sandro. Malta aligns with the West as it is where we are located – our natural place.