On the rocks: Malta-EU relations in times of crisis

What policymakers across the European Union care about most does not overlap with the priorities in Malta – and during covid-19 the country has been looking for policy partners beyond Europe

Ursula von der Leyen, Robert Abela
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The European Council on Foreign Relations’ Coalition Explorer provides indispensable insight into how the government of Malta navigates the wider European constellation of foreign partners and policy areas. The survey records the views of policy professionals across the European Union – and the latest data show that Malta leads a lonely existence, as one of the states that other EU members are least likely to get in touch with to discuss emerging issues. Policymakers across Europe suggest that Malta is also one of the least responsive member states when they do get in touch with it. Meanwhile, the government of Malta has become disaffected by a lack of European solidarity on migration and the coronavirus pandemic, and is increasingly critical of the EU. It has been turning to its bilateral relations – often with countries outside Europe – and pursuing unilateral action to achieve its policy goals.

Disaffected by a lack of EU solidarity, Malta is pivoting towards allies outside the EU.

Managing irregular migration has been a top priority for the EU for many years, but there is as yet no sign that a comprehensive EU migration policy will be agreed. This autumn, the European Commission proposed a New Pact on Migration and Asylum, which predictably floundered in the quagmire of competing national interests and regional rivalries. It is only the most recent example of the challenges the EU faces in moving beyond its fragile internal coalitions and fostering solidarity among its members. Clara Sophie Cramer’s recent article for ECFR offers an invaluable analysis of the divide between the ‘coalition of the willing’ – made up of states that support an overarching European migration policy that, in part, reduces the burden on frontline member states – and the Visegrad Group, which maintains that migration policy is exclusively a matter of national prerogative.

The challenges facing Malta are not insubstantial. The country has one of the highest numbers of refugees per capita in the EU, and one of the highest numbers of irregular migrant arrivals as a percentage of its small population. It is no surprise that managing irregular migration is – and has long been – the leading policy priority in Malta, and remains a salient and controversial topic for the Maltese public. For over a decade the government of Malta has championed overhauling the EU’s Dublin Regulation, which places an undue burden on countries that are the first point of entry for asylum seekers. The government has called for a comprehensive migration policy that includes functional burden-sharing by setting up a permanent asylum seeker relocation system.

Malta receives the vast majority of its irregular migrants along the Central Mediterranean Route via Libya – and Libya policy ranks as the island’s second highest policy priority according to the Coalition Explorer. This is not true of the EU more broadly, for which Libya ranks as one of its lowest priorities, despite the civil war in that country and the exodus of migrants and refugees. Other differences set Malta apart from its European partners: border policy is the ninth most important priority within the EU, while in Malta it ranks fourth. Africa policy is in seventeenth position across the EU, while in Malta it is seventh. EU policy supports the externalisation of the border through financing and enhancing the operational capacity of the Libyan coast guard, but Malta receives functional solidarity on migration, border, and Libya policy primarily from other Mediterranean member states, in particular Italy, Cyprus, Greece, Spain, and France.

Disaffected by a lack of EU solidarity, Malta is pivoting towards allies outside the EU. Late this summer, for example, the government took the unprecedented step of pledging support for Turkey’s military intervention to shore up the internationally recognised but besieged Government of National Accord in Tripoli. More recently, Malta’s prime minister, Robert Abela, revealed that the country is negotiating a Status of Forces Agreement with the United States, ostensibly aimed at combating smuggling and organised crime emanating from Libya.   

This year’s Coalition Explorer survey took place just as the coronavirus pandemic hit Europe. Today, covid-19 ranks as the top policy priority for all EU member states. The European Solidarity Tracker, conducted by ECFR as the pandemic spread, indicates the extent to which the EU and its member states failed to provide substantive relief to Malta in the initial months of the crisis. Indeed, 70 per cent of Maltese respondents to the Coalition Explorer Coronavirus Special, carried out in May, related that there had been less cooperation among EU member states than they would have expected. With states across Europe imposing export bans on medicines and personal protective equipment in the initial stages of the crisis, Malta’s foreign minister proudly pointed to China as the country where Malta found “solace in its longstanding bilateral ties” outside the EU. Of the relations that Malta relied on throughout the initial wave of the pandemic, those with China, Hong Kong, Egypt, India, Kuwait, and Japan were of primary importance.[1] To a lesser extent, three EU member states – Italy, Germany, and Spain – also provided limited support during that period.

Against the backdrop of these migration and coronavirus crises, the ruling Labour Party has ramped up populist rhetoric accusing the EU of failing to offer substantive support to Malta, while strengthening and lauding strategic bilateral relations beyond Europe. There is no doubt that in policy areas such as migration, Malta will continue to press for “a more capable and cohesive European Union.” However, in the short term at least, the island will increasingly nurture relations outside the EU, defend unilateral policies that serve its national interests, and escalate a rhetorical shift away from the union.


[1] Interview with the managing director of the Central Procurement and Supplies Unit of the Ministry for Health, 29 September 2020.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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