Malta has begun an exciting new chapter in its diplomatic history and has presented itself more confident than ever before. As the EU’s smallest member state, the country has rarely been in the global spotlight. However, a number of high-profile political events have put Malta on the map. The island hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), the Valletta Summit Conference on Migration in 2015 and in the first six months of 2017, it held its first presidency of the European Union. Britain’s exit negotiations with the EU were high on the agenda during the presidency, while the country was also using its influence at the EU’s top table to revive the EU’s relationship with its Mediterranean neighbours. Malta has long maintained close political and economic relations with many non-EU nations, in particular those of North Africa. The island believes it can bridge the ‘diplomatic gap’ between the European Union and Arab states and assist in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Malta also plans to further cement its relations with BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China). Unlike many other EU countries, Malta particularly attaches great importance to its relationship with China and recent years have seen deeper commercial ties being developed.
Despite being a small island, Malta has a history of involvement in international conflict resolution. It hosted the famous Bush-Gorbachev summit in 1989 that ended the Cold War. As a neutral country – a status that the island adopted after gaining independence from the UK – Malta was seen as an ideal venue for talks on building a new world order. But Malta not only hosted the diplomatic gatherings involving world powers, it also pursued the objectives of its own foreign policy agenda. Independence was won under a Nationalist government; but in the early 1970s the Labour Party, under Dom Mintoff, took office and governed until 1987 – a period in which the island established economic and cultural ties with the Arab world, the socialist countries of the Eastern Bloc and China. Malta, in 1972, was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. At the same time, relations with Western Europe became cooler.
With the election of the Nationalist Party, led by Eddie Fenech- Adami, in 1987, Malta’s relations with Europe and the West improved greatly. The island officially applied for membership of the EU in 1990. However, following a change of government in October 1996, Malta’s application was suspended. It was reactivated when the Nationalist Party was re-elected in 1998 after a snap general election. A referendum on Malta’s EU membership was held in March 2003. The ‘Yes’ camp, led by the governing Nationalist Party, won by a comfortable 54%; and in May 2004, Malta became a member of the European Union.
The cornerstone of Malta’s foreign policy today is its EU membership. Despite divisions within the country and among political leaders over joining Europe, Malta has subsequently achieved cross party consensus on EU matters. Now, almost 13 years after joining the Union, membership is regarded as mostly beneficial to Malta, for it has opened up new business opportunities and provided access to EU funds. In December 2007, Malta became part of the Schengen area, enabling passport-free travel across national borders, and in January 2008 it joined the Eurozone. The island is also a member of the Council of Europe, the United Nations, the Commonwealth and the Partnership for Peace, as well as being a keen participant in the Euro-Med process. On defence matters Malta usually allies itself with its fellow neutral EU member states such as Ireland, Sweden, Finland and Austria.
The country has also begun to orientate itself towards the world’s new rising giants in Asia and Latin America, complementing its long history of co-operation and trade with the Arab world and North Africa. In order to strengthen relations with non-EU countries such as the US, India, Brazil and China, along with Malta’s non-EU Mediterranean neighbours, the government has established two separate ministries: an EU Affairs Ministry; and a Foreign Ministry which is exclusively responsible for maintaining relations with non-EU states, as well as for trade promotion.
Carmelo Abela, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Promotion
Malta’s location at the centre of the Mediterranean has for centuries accorded it geopolitical and strategic importance. Throughout its history, Malta has paid special attention to the countries of North Africa. Perhaps no other single crisis has tested Malta’s foreign policy as much as the Arab Spring, and in particular the Libyan revolution in 2011 and the war that followed. Initial fears were that Malta would be swamped by military units and turned into a virtual aircraft carrier when NATO established its No-Fly Zone; but the country preserved its neutrality admirably while maintaining friendly relations with the emerging Arab democracies. Having always been an advocate of Mediterranean unity, Malta acted as a mediator between parties during the Libyan conflict, supporting efforts to find a peaceful solution and assisting in evacuating civilians. While the circumstances on the ground were more complex than expected and the search for stability in the region continues to this day, Malta continues to present its credentials as a trusted interlocutor. Keen to see the region prosper, Malta offers these countries assistance in bringing them closer to the European Union. In the same way the island supports the Middle East peace process, arguing that Malta could make valuable contributions, as it is small enough not to be considered a threat to any one party.
In recent years, Malta’s voice was one of the loudest to call for concerted action on migration. The country has long recognised the need for dialogue and cooperation with countries of origin, transit and destination. On an EU level, Malta has been a proponent of burden-sharing and has frequently called for solidarity among member states. Hence, it was no coincidence that in November 2015 the island hosted the Valletta Summit Conference on Migration, which focused attention on emigration and brought together the Heads of State and Government of EU member states and the countries party to the Khartoum Process and the Rabat Process, as well as a considerable number of Heads of State of Government from African States. One of the key outcomes of the summit was the signing of an agreement for the creation of an Emergency Trust Fund to assist African countries in their development and encourage them to take back nationals who migrated to Europe.
The Valletta Summit was followed by the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), which attracted representatives of the 53 Commonwealth nations. It was already the second time that Malta hosted this gathering, with another meeting held in Malta in 2005. Global security challenges, development values, climate change, and the relevance and impact of the Commonwealth were among the issues being discussed.
Malta’s role as a mediator for dialogue was further strengthened when in October 2016 the country hosted the Anna Lindh Foundation Mediterranean Forum, which contributed to putting intercultural dialogue and people-to-people cooperation at the heart of the reviewed European Neighbourhood Policy. On an on-going basis, Malta also participates in a number of other Mediterranean forums, such as the 5+5 Dialogue and the MED 7 Group, which further support stability in the Mediterranean.
Malta also places emphasis on commercial diplomacy. Its very own history has taught the island that commerce lies at the roots of diplomacy. While Malta’s special relationship with China actually predates the emergence of China as a global economic player, it took on another dimension in recent years when Chinese firms started to invest significantly in sectors such as energy and telecoms. The country is keen to also enhance political, economic and cultural cooperation with other countries in Asia, Latin America and, of course, in the Mediterranean region, where efforts to take trade and international business a step further are also seen as a way to enhance prosperity. Experience has shown that economic issues often lie just beneath the surface of many political disputes and weave the fabric for many political solutions.