Stability in Europe’s Southern Neighborhood: A Priority for Malta’s EU Presidency

The recent ripples of insecurity across the southern Mediterranean have presented profound challenges for the European Union (EU).  While Libya and Syria continue to experience protracted violence and lawlessness, many other countries in the region face acute economic and social difficulties.

At the helm during this tumultuous time is the island state of Malta. Starting this month, Malta takes over the Presidency of the Council of Europe. The presidency of the council rotates on a six-month basis, offering each of the EU’s 28 member states the opportunity to shape the EU’s agenda. Functionally, it chairs meetings of the Council, where ministers and heads of states meet. While each member state retains ultimate responsibility for its foreign policy, the EU strives to reach a common approach to external relations, particularly on issues impacting the EU as a whole. During its presidency, Malta will be in a unique position to influence those policies it deems vital to Europe’s prosperity and stability.

The Maltese government’s EU presidency priorities include a concerted effort to focus on challenges emanating from Europe’s southern frontier. Malta will work to address broad issues related to migration, security, social inclusion, and the single market. The emphasis on issues from Malta’s region is not unusual Tonio Borg, Malta’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs and EU Commissioner, tells MENASource, adding that when assuming the presidency of the EU, countries in the North or East of Europe push for their own regional interests. An example of this was most recently seen during the previous EU Presidency of Slovakia, where attention was purposely and strategically directed towards Europe’s Eastern Neighborhood. During the Slovak Presidency, a European Border and Coast Guard Agency was set up, providing operational support to governments located in the East, such as Serbia and Macedonia.  

Malta’s desire for the EU to pay further attention to the continent’s southern border is not entirely new. Lawrence Gonzi, the former Prime Minister of Malta whose government was in power when Malta joined the EU, tells MENASource, “Malta’s EU membership was envisaged from the very start as an opportunity to add value to Mediterranean issues forming part of the EU agenda.” However, despite the EU’s awareness of the significance of the region, Gonzi believes that the EU often ignored Malta and the other Mediterranean EU countries’ pleas for help. “During my time as prime minister of Malta, my government insisted with EU colleagues to keep a close eye on developments taking place on the southern border,” he says. “Unfortunately, the warnings put forward by Malta and other Mediterranean member states were not always given the importance that they deserved.”

While the growing migration crisis and threat of terrorism arising from the southern Mediterranean may be of geographical importance only to member states from the region, the broader effects across Europe have been seen.  “The challenges posed by immigration and terrorism render the Southern Mediterranean of supreme importance to the EU,” Martin Scicluna, Malta’s former ambassador to NATO, tells MENASource. As such, Scicluna believes that Malta should encourage the development of a strategic plan for the Southern Mediterranean that “would embrace economic support and security cooperation to tackle the twin threats from migration and Muslim extremism.”

Of particular relevance for Malta is the precarious situation with its close neighbor and friend, Libya–a country that has struggled with political instability, and violent conflict since the toppling of the Qadhafi regime in 2011.  With Libya’s current political agreement and government of national accord dangerously close to failure, Malta will look to use its long standing reputation, as pointed out by Gonzi, as an “honest and neutral broker” in coming up with trusted solutions towards ending the instability in Libya. Evidence of this reputation was seen last May as Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat, became the first EU head of government to visit Libya’s presidency council in Tripoli as well as Malta recently hosting a meeting between the UN’s SRSG, Martin Kobler, and a delegation from Libya’s House of Representatives. Malta will use its experience and expertise on the country to include all external factors when deliberating the subject at the EU level.  Malta’s Foreign Minister George Vella has already stated that discussions on the North African country should “delve into the political and humanitarian realities” and that the activities of international actors like Russia need to be considered, “I’m not comfortable. We all know the Russians’ dreams have always been to have bases in the Mediterranean.”

The Maltese Presidency’s efforts to tackle issues in the southern Mediterranean region will ostensibly be broad and ambitious. Aside from the above, based on its stated priorities, Malta also aspires to convene the parties involved in the Middle East peace process back to the drawing board, encourage support in building a democratic Tunisia, push for a unified approach to addressing the conflict in Syria and shore up the EU’s relationship with the League of Arab States and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Tackling these issues is a herculean task for Europe’s smallest member considering the EU’s track record of reaching consensus on pressing issues from North Africa and the Middle East. Despite Malta not being a traditional European heavy weight, its location and the need for the EU to work out a strong policy on migration, may allow Malta to step up to the plate.

Matthew Lowell is a Director of Business Development and a Senior Researcher at Binda Consulting International (BCI). BCI is a political and international development consultancy based in Malta.

Frank Talbot is a Senior Associate at Binda Consulting International (BCI).  Based in Washington, he focuses on conflict analysis and community resilience in North Africa.

Image: Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat attends a debate on the priorities of the incoming Malta Presidency of the EU for the next six months at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, January 18, 2017. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann