As former Maltese Prime Minister, Dom Mintoff, once asserted: “There can be no security and peace in Europe if there is none in the Mediterranean.”
It is this principle that has underpinned Malta’s foreign policy since the 1970s, and is an assertion that Malta’s incumbent Foreign Affairs Minister, Carmelo Abela, believes still holds true today.
While all parts of the world experience their own conflicts and socio-political issues, the Mediterranean basin holds some of the most serious: issues that not only affect individual countries, but have wider implications for the rest of Europe – and internationally.
Migration is foremost amongst these concerns, and Malta – a tiny island-nation in the heart of the Mediterranean basin, which serves as a direct entry point to Europe from North Africa – has understandably been amongst the countries particularly anxious about the crisis.
With a population of just 460,000, as of this year the island hosts the second-highest number of refugees per capita (18.2 per 1,000 people), yet maintains the fourth-highest proportion of positive decisions on asylum application (68.7 percent) in the European Union. Like other member states, Malta regards establishing a common immigration and asylum policy as the EU’s highest priority.
“As a country, we don’t have the luxury, at least at the moment, not to talk about migration”, says Abela, referencing the political distraction of Brexit, along with the upcoming EU Parliament elections, as major roadblocks to progress on discussions for a common EU policy on the issue. “We need to talk about migration, and we have been saying this for quite some time now. At times we’re on our own, trying to deal with the situation. At other times we’ve found a number of member states that came in to help.”
“So, as the European Union elections for the next European Parliament approach, I think that we are in a situation where we are thinking about the present, and how to deal with the issue of Brexit.” Abela clarified. Pressure on Malta to take rescued migrants has increased in recent months, particularly since Italy’s populist government began turning them away on assuming power in mid-2018. This situation came to a head in January, when both countries initially refused to dock two ships carrying 49 migrants, which were picked up off the coast of Libya.
The incident hit global headlines when Pope Francis appealed to European leaders to show “concrete solidarity”, and give the migrants “a safe port”. Thankfully, Malta eventually reached a deal with eight EU countries – including Italy – to divide up and take in the migrants, who had been stranded at sea for weeks (Malta had allowed them to enter its waters for supplies, and to shelter from bad weather).
While Malta’s Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, welcomed the show of “solidarity and understanding” shown by the EU nations, it brought to attention the challenge that remains for the bloc, in reaching an agreement on a pan-European solution to the migration crisis – a policy that Malta remains committed to achieving.
“The situation as I see it, is like this,” starts the Foreign Minister. “From the external aspect of migration, there is broad consensus within the European Union about what we need to do: investing in countries of origin, guarding our borders better, helping countries of transit. What we need to do is to not only be more active, but basically to implement better what we agree to do, when it comes to the external aspect of migration.”
Though EU member states have so far not been able to find a consensus on search and rescue cooperation, Malta pursues the only migration policy that has broad support across the bloc: the fortification and externalisation of Europe’s external border. For instance, Malta trains the Libyan Coast Guard on Maltese soil, and co-finances border management projects through the Partnership Framework on Migration.
From an EU perspective, this approach has been successful. In 2018, the number of migrant departures from Libya declined precipitously, as did arrivals in Europe along the central Mediterranean route. However, critics would argue that – with Libya having now been handed over the responsibility for a vast search and rescue zone – migrant deaths have increased dramatically as a percentage of crossings, while it has also led to a sharp rise in the number of migrants who have been forcibly returned to the country, and incarcerated there.
It is a very valid argument that highlights just how nuanced, complex and multi-layered, migration and asylum is, as an international humanitarian issue. This is precisely why Malta, says the Foreign Minister, continues to call for a multi-faceted, holistic approach to the problem.
“Migration is a global challenge, and this is why I was pleased that the United Nations managed to address the issue, and come up with the Global Compact for Safe and Orderly Migration”, an intergovernmental negotiated agreement, covering ‘all dimensions of international migration in a holistic and comprehensive manner’.
“We need to manage the situation, and not try to stop the issue of migration, because it will never stop,”, stresses Abela. “But managing it means that we have to find legal ways for migrants to migrate from one place to the other. Today it’s Europe, one day it could be the other way around.”
The Minister points to Malta’s own history of emigration during the 1950s and 1960s, when a relatively large number of Maltese left for Australia, the United States, and the UK, as an example of the shoe being on the other foot.
How then can Europe build upon its current strategy towards migration? Besides finding ways to disrupt and tackle the criminal activity of people-trafficking, which continues to fuel the crisis, Abela says the EU must adopt an approach of “trade not aid” with the countries that contribute the highest number of migrants and refugees.
“Recently, we are seeing that more economic migrants are trying to come to Europe”, he highlights. “Which means that we need to be more successful when it comes to working with countries of origin. We need to create more jobs, and we need to provide more education to these countries and to their populations, the vast majority of which are young people under the age of 30. We need to give, and provide a future for these populations in their own countries, and that is why we need to act, and be more successful when it comes to investment. So it’s trade, and not aid, to these countries.”
For this frame of mind to enter the political discourse in Europe, and indeed, translate into reform of the common migration policy, Abela reiterates that the EU members must start communicating on the issue once again, and begin demonstrating the bloc’s very raison d’être: unity.
“The Common European Asylum system is not tackling the reality of today. The Dublin Regulation (which came into force in 1997) was designed for a different kind of migration, when numbers were much, much smaller than they are now. I think we need first of all to have a reality check, and to adapt our internal regulations to fit what’s happening.
“Irrespective of what changes we need to make, the most important thing is that we agree to work together – that is the starting point for discussions. It is a complex situation, but we need to show solidarity among the European Union member states, and I think it’s important that regulations are changed to fit today’s purpose.”