IT’S a brave man who will admit he was wrong, especially in politics. But Joseph Muscat, prime minister of Malta, has done just that. Having originally campaigned against Malta joining the EU, he’s since said that joining the EU is the best decision his country could have made. Now, as Malta flexes its muscles as chair of the European Union’s Council for the next six months, it’s worth considering that this country of under 500,000 has serious power in a union of 500 million people. Incidentally, the UK was due to take up the presidency in July but... well.
First published in The National, 11 January 2017.
On that note, Muscat has been very clear about what the UK can expect going into the Brexit negotiations – no free movement of people means no full access to the single market. While the Council will resist being a back-seat driver, instead leaving the Commission’s chief negotiator, Michael Barnier, to get on with the job, it is always important to remember that power within the EU lies with the MEPs and the elected leaders of the member states in the Council .
Presidency of the Council confers upon the member state the authority to set the agenda, chair the meetings and generally develop the long-term priorities of the EU. It is far from a symbolic role. To give longer-term oversight three successive presidencies, named the presidency trois, work in 18-month blocs to keep it consistent.
This also means smaller and newer states benefit from the experience of the older members. At the time this paper goes to print, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and the College will be on their way to meet the Maltese Cabinet to discuss the challenges and priorities for the EU over the next six months. This a serious role, with serious prestige.
Malta’s priorities have already been clearly laid out: migration, security, single market, social inclusion, neighbourhood policy and maritime affairs. Malta has already highlighted that the EU needs to redouble its efforts in stabilising Libya and supporting Tunisia’s delicate democracy.
Muscat has spoken of the “Reunion” of Europe, and the need to foster both a European-level agenda and a sense of unity. It won’t be easy, with Brexit, the rise of far-right parties, and terrorism across the continent threatening to leave the union frayed. Europe will need a steady hand and a positive vision to guide it through the next few months of upheaval, something Malta can provide.
After all Malta may have only joined in 2004, not so long ago, but EU barometer findings show that Malta has the strongest sense of EU identity anywhere in Europe.
Despite this, Malta has also retained its own strong sense of national identity. This includes an opt-out from the Birds Directive, negotiated during the accession talks. Malta’s derogation from the Directive makes them the sole EU country to allow the recreational hunting of turtledoves and quail. While I personally disagree with the decision on spring hunting, it is clearly an issue deemed important enough to Malta to negotiate a limited opt-out.
Contrary to what Eurosceptics claim, the EU is remarkably flexible when it needs to be – something that may count in Scotland’s favour.
Muscat has already voiced his concern that the Brexit negotiations could overlap the 2019 European elections, effectively distorting them into votes on how to treat the UK’s exit bid. This could give excess focus to parties who want to do the same. But, while acknowledging that Brexit adds a layer of complexity to the presidency, the Maltese government remains quietly confident and Muscat says the country is “geared to handle” the triggering of Article 50.
Crucially, remember this, Malta’s population is under 430,000 and they are in a position to exert real influence over the Brexit process. Whatever happens over the next few months, it should give us plenty to think about – for example, what an independent Scotland with a population of more than five million could achieve as a member of the EU.