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‘We cannot ignore the elephant in the room’

Interview - September 27, 2016

Taking on the European Union Presidency at a time when some of its members are having a crisis of faith as to whether the union has a viable future may seem like a poisoned chalice, but it is a challenge – and an opportunity – that Malta is looking forward to meeting with diplomacy and transparency. Maltese Parliamentary Secretary for the EU Presidency 2017 and EU Funds Dr Ian Borg explains what is coming up for Malta at the helm of the EU and how it will handle the political hot potato that is Brexit.



Malta will soon undertake the EU Presidency during troubled times for the union. What can Malta bring to the table and what will be the Maltese approach?

Over the years we managed to keep a very good relationship with all the stakeholders – North Africa, Middle East – and on many occasions we have historical meetings taking place in Malta, where different parties with different views could come together in Malta and discuss. The Valletta Summit (on migration, November 11-12, 2015) was another case in point. We put forward our commitment and availability to have the summit meeting in Malta, and I think that some of the most important and concrete results were achieved.

Not all the Europeans citizens are convinced any more, like for instance the Maltese people, that the European project is working and that it is good for them. We cannot ignore the elephant in the room, the fact that one of the major and strongest member states, the United Kingdom, is leaving. There is a decision and it has to be accepted. In my opinion, we don’t have to try and explain how or why the UK citizens took a democratic decision. We have to draw the right lessons from that decision. Let us ask why the UK citizens are no longer convinced about the European project – what went wrong, how can we improve?

What most of the media and the public debate, also when it comes to the presidency, might focus on could be marginal issues – how much the country spent on it, whether the ties that were given out were elegant or not, and whether the gifts were appropriate or otherwise. I mean, since this is a political project, what really matters is whether we discuss issues and take actions that really matter to the citizens.

So whilst setting up the agenda and trying to reach a consensus among the member states, and then going to Parliament to close the deal, I believe that what each and every minister, as well as all our working parties and chairs we appointed, should keep in mind is whether that particular issue can really improve the European citizens’ life when we adopt it, when we reach an agreement, or whether it is more of a bureaucratic legislation which can only improve the life of the institutions for the member states. This is where we have to give priority.


Through various recent crises, including the migration crisis, the EU has been criticized for its lack of decision-making and involvement of neighboring parties. What role can Malta play and what are the main issues to be addressed?

We also witnessed some important crises and there is also plenty of room for discussion on whether the European Union approached them in the right way – the various financial crises we witnessed, the latest one being Greece, the migration crisis, something which we in Malta together with Italy and Greece faced for a decade. However, only when migrants reached certain capitals in Europe did they talk about it, and all the news agencies were following the subject. Whilst we are speaking about this, I am pretty sure that hundreds of people are risking their lives in the Mediterranean Sea, which nobody is talking about or reporting. I am not saying that we have to open our gates and open our borders for everyone, because this can have implications on another pressing issue, which is our security. However, those entitled to protection according to international treaties either because there is war in their country or they are being persecuted, let’s give them this protection because this was always a test case for our values upon which the Union was set up – the value of solidarity – the value of social Europe. Therefore, these are issues we will definitely push forward.

But then, there are also very positive things taking place in the EU legislative processes, which are the positive faces of the Union with the citizens. These respond to issues of widespread concern. So the challenge is let’s hurry up, let’s negotiate. For instance, let’s complete the single market and the dossiers related to it, and the digital agenda and the e-commerce it generates. Let’s push them forward, let’s get the legislation done in order to have more economical activity in the various member states.

Other issues include the energy union. This is a very important project with the commission that, through its vice president, is pushing forward and is something on which we all agree – the energy supply, the sources of that energy – and also the diversification, not only connecting to the east but also connecting to the south.

This brings me to another issue that is being debated in Europe – the revision of the Neighborhood Policy. When the Neighborhood Policy was enacted back in 2004, I was hoping for a ring of friends, but from Libya to Tunisia we have a ring of fire! So whose fault is this? Can we only blame our neighbors? Or could we have done things better, in order to improve the situation?

So these are the issues that will definitely be featured on our priority list. The Mediterranean and the southern neighborhoods are of particular importance to Malta, not only when it comes to the so-called problems or challenges, like migration, but also the opportunities. This region is very rich when it comes to the historical and touristic aspects, but also commercially. For instance, Malta is taking every opportunity, being geographically positioned just in the middle of the region, when it comes to sea transportation, and therefore, the maritime sector. We would like to see the enhancement and the development of the maritime and the blue economy. Also, as a logistical hub, being the gateway to Europe. And of course there are other issues in each and every council formation, which will be given the due importance, not to forget also the social dimension. We still have thousands, if not millions, of people in Europe living in poverty, social exclusion, and therefore we need to ask ourselves what we are doing when it comes to education, employment, and so on and so forth.

Coming back to what I said in the beginning, I think we have several positive stories to tell, notwithstanding the fact that we are the smallest member state. We have all these positive stories to tell to the 26 member states. I consider that we are lucky to have the presidency in this particular moment. I think it is high time that we, the ones remaining in the Union, must work to revitalize this project. We want to send the right message to our citizens, we want to address the deficit of the citizens’ faith in the European project and explain to them why remaining in the Union, why re-launching this project, is the future of our continent.


Brexit has brought additional uncertainty to the EU. While there is a wait-and-see attitude, how do you see the future of the relationships with the UK?

The UK is and remains a strategic partner. For Malta, this is the second time we are legally separating from the UK in 50 years. We got independence back in 1964. At the moment, Malta is presiding for the Commonwealth, for instance. And I am quite sure that the UK will use that, especially now, to reach out once again to several countries across the globe. We will always be best friends with the UK. We have to be smart and get the best deals for our citizens. Of course, the negotiations will not give the UK a better deal than having full membership. One cannot have access to the single market without having freedom of movement. We are part of the Union and I am sure that all the member states will agree on that particular aspect.

At the same time, we have to reach a very good deal because our young people would like to travel to London and the UK, they want to study in the UK. We have special agreements when it comes to medical services with the UK, and so on and so forth. London is an important capital, not only for Europe but also across the globe, and therefore strong relations with the UK will remain crucial for us.

It will be the commission to receive the mandate from the council, from the European council, to push forward and negotiate Brexit. We saw in July the appointment of the former French commissioner Mr Barnier, who will be the chief negotiator.


What will be the Maltese Presidency’s role in this regard?

It is still early days to tell what would be the role of the Maltese presidency.

We will do our best, but that can be difficult. I think failure is not an option when it comes to presiding over the council and also to dealing with such an important ally for the Union. I do not deny that we are disappointed with this decision but it is a democratic decision and we respect it. The UK can question the result and make all the research and soul searching as a sovereign country.

From our side we have to also do our homework because we realize that the concerns surrounding the vote in the UK may also be shared by citizens across the European Union. So, it is a particular phase where we need strong leadership. And I am pretty sure that our Prime Minister, who is highly respected, can give an added value. I believe that we are perceived as small but realistic and pragmatic, and we can be that honest broker, chairing these meetings.


The EU has been criticized for its “one-size-fits-all” methodology. What can be improved to get citizens understanding better the policies and the overall project?

I believe that, first of all, you have to explain better what this Union is. I think that the people are not well informed of who decides what. Politicians are flying to Brussels, they take decisions, they come back and they tell the citizens that Brussels has decided this or that. For most of the cases, it is member states meeting in Brussels who are deciding this and that. We witnessed this with the migration issue where we always criticized the commission for not putting forward a proposal to address the issue. In this particular case, the commission was quite expedite in tabling a proposal – the migration agenda – and then it was up to the member states to reach a consensus about a final text, and then negotiate with the European Parliament. So let’s not always blame Brussels because decisions in Brussels are taken by ministers, prime ministers, who represent member states and are democratically elected by their people.

On the other hand, there is the European Parliament and there again, Malta has the highest voting participation when it comes to the elections to the European Parliament. So, we are active citizens as a member state, and active citizens also from the way we debate Europe. We now have to be smart as politicians, and to transmit that message to the other member states during the presidency through the media in order to share our positive experience and reach the objective that you referred to. It is up to us to communicate this procedure. We are building a powerful communications strategy and hopefully it will be effective.


Malta will sit in the driving seat of the EU with a strong confidence based on its economic momentum and domestic achievements. How will this good reputation affect your relationship with the other members in Brussels?

I think that we exceeded our expectations and also others’ expectations. I mean what we have to build upon, in my opinion, is the good reputation we obtained because of these results. When we came into government, three years ago, we were under excessive deficit procedure with the commission. The commission had a number of infringements open with the Maltese government. We managed to close most of them; we opened a channel with the commission, and we are making more use of the council secretariat and also improving our relation with the institutions.

We also had some other occasions where we showed our real commitment to the European project. I’ll mention once again the Valletta Summit and also this good reputation – economically we started with 3.4% deficit, and we are now at 1%, at which point that procedure was removed. The public finances are under control and yet again, as we are achieving these results, so we gain respect, we gain confidence and the good reputation.

At the same time we have to pay attention, we have to always be very cautious and take the right decisions. I think we still have this credibility and we have to build on it. It is also crucial too – when you are in Brussels, you do not have to make your case because you are in Malta. You always have to build up your case attached to the European process because bureaucrats in these institutions are of course there to operate this heavy machine.

Therefore, it is also crucial to now also shift our way of thinking and doing things because very soon we will be representing the council, representing 27 governments with the other institutions. That is important. Whatever we say, administer, whatever we do, it will be perceived that this is the council, this is the council’s face and therefore it is important to be on our best behavior.