Sunday

22nd Jan 2017

Focus

'Pragmatic' Malta to take on eurosceptics

  • "We should stop blaming people who vote for extremist groups and we should focus on their concerns," said Maltese PM Joseph Muscat (l), with Juncker. (Photo: European Commission)

Malta, the smallest EU country, has launched its 6-month presidency of the EU Council on Wednesday (11 January) with an aim of trying to heal the wounds of an EU faced with Brexit and the rise of euroscepticism.

"We don't have delusions of grandeur," said Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat at a press conference in Valletta. But he promised "hard work" to try to mend the "huge disconnect" between European citizens and politicians at national and EU levels.

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During its term at the helm of the EU, Malta will focus on migration, security, the development of the digital single market to boost growth and progress of social inclusion.

In the eyes of the Maltese PM, a social-democrat, all issues are linked when it comes to explaining the crisis of faith the EU is experiencing.

"We should stop blaming people who vote for extremist groups and we should focus on their concerns," he said. "Most of times they are asking the good questions and extremists give the wrong answers."

"I see the limitations of trickle-down approach," he said, pointing out at "the lack of proper distribution of wealth [and] the lack of proper policies that foster economic growth."

He said that EU leaders should put themselves in the place of "people who feel disenfranchised" by the economic crisis and the arrival of new migrants. So far, he noted, political correctness has prevented them from "tackling issues head on".

Maltese officials insist that the EU has been too slow at reacting to the financial and migration crisis, and that it has to show action and pragmatism.

"There is a deficit of credibility because there is a deficit of implementation," the deputy prime minister Louis Grech told journalists.

But on the most controversial issue on its agenda, the reform of the Dublin asylum system, he said that Malta's job would mainly "ensure that there is a convergence" between member states.

'Mutual understanding'

A proposal presented by the European Commission in May last year has been opposed by several member states, in particular over a plan to introduce mandatory relocation of asylum seekers with a €250,000 fine per migrant that a country would refuse to take.

"This is an issue of mutual understanding,” Muscat said, adding that Malta would be "pragmatic" and would listen to opposing countries and their public opinions before proposing a compromise.

He noted Malta, which itself faced mass arrivals several years ago, has been "one of few countries advocating burden-sharing" and said that "solidarity is not a a la carte thing".

He insisted however that EU borders must be strengthened first and that a first step would be for member states to provide resources to the new EU border and coast guard and asylum agency.

After the British vote to leave the EU, the 27 other countries have embarked in a soul-searching effort to give the EU a new purpose.

The effort started at a summit in Bratislava in September and new initiatives should be agreed in Rome at the end of March for the 60th anniversary of the Rome treaty.

'Crucial' summit

In the meantime, Malta will host an intermediate summit on 3 February.

The gathering is of "crucial importance", European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said in Valletta on Wednesday, explaining that the EU "is delivering in a better and more performant way than this was the case until now."

"The next 12 months are going to define the future of Europe," Grech said, adding that a lot of what can be achieved will depend on the outcome of the elections in Netherlands, France and Germany.

But the minister said that the EU should "avoid tensions as much as possible" and adopt reforms "within the current structures" instead of embarking in a treaty change process. He noted that the Brexit vote has been a "catalyst" for "a reexamination of the European project, but not a redefinition".

He also warned against the temptation to vote for anti-EU parties.


Even if the system is not perfect, he noted, leaving a structure that has provided stability, security, peace and better living conditions over 60 years would be "unhealthy and counter-productive to EU citizens".

Malta joined the EU in 2004 after only 54 percent of voters backed the accession in a referendum. Now, however, 82 percent of Maltese feel they are EU citizens, compared to an average 67 percent in the EU, according to the latest Eurobarometer figures.

Size of the brain

"The EU has widened our perspective," Vanni Xuereb, the head of the Malta-EU Steering and Action Committee, a public agency, told EUobserver.

"As an island we can feel we are part of something else," he said.

He added however that "Maltese are quite pragmatic when it comes to accession, which is also a warning. That could change when they think are are not benefiting from the EU."

In that sense, he observed, the Maltese population may be a good indicator of the feelings of other Europeans in the coming months.

That is maybe why Malta is starting its first EU presidency with an ambition to have its voice heard.

"Smaller countries can be effective too," its deputy PM Louis Grech said. "The size of the brain cannot be judged by the size of the country."

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