Times of Malta, March 16 2015
The turmoil in Libya is a reflection of internal politics devoid of dialogue. But it also confirms the West’s lack of assistance to construct stable institutions of governance following the ousting of the Gaddafi regime.
The Libyan situation is the latest reminder on the need for a constructive and thorough debate on Malta’s foreign policy and neutral status. Malta’s Constitution clearly refers to a Cold War context which no longer exists but it includes principles that are applicable to a post-Cold War world.
In this context, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s recent statements on Libya have been generally welcome. Muscat emphasised that while Malta must be vigilant to safeguard its security, we should not be overcome by unnecessary alarmism. He also promised to speak up if Malta is under some tangible threat.
On the other hand, a controversy arose when it was reported that the Maltese government did not join all other EU-member states in a proclaimed international anti-Isis coalition. Does the European mutual defence clause guarantee unconditional maximum support, irrespective of how national governments act?
The Labour government seemed to offer an alternative stance on Libya when, some weeks ago, Muscat, together with his Italian counterpart, Matteo Renzi, called for UN-mandated military intervention in there adding that diplomacy should be a chance. The Nationalist and Green parties, which tend to give ‘active’ interpretations to Malta’s neutral status, both support the call for UN-mandated intervention in Libya.
We have also learned that Malta will not be sending any soldiers should there be a UN-mandated mission in Libya and that our country can act as a bridge between different forces.
This approach can be reconciled with taking sides when necessary, as Malta did under the previous Gonzi administration when the Gaddafi regime was making unacceptable threats to its people. Back then, Malta offered international humanitarian and logistic support, rather than sitting on the fence, the latter being the preferred option of supporters of ‘passive’ neutrality.
Such ‘passivists’ believe that if Malta sits pretty with respect to international crises, including those close to the island, our country will be a less likely source of attack by enemies, terrorists, what have you. This passivism is not pacifist, it is merely an insular, inward-looking approach devoid of any concepts of international solidarity and reciprocity.
On the contrary, an active form of neutrality is outward looking and driven by the belief that we should not turn a blind eye to injustices around the world. It believes in Malta’s potential as an international actor which can foster dialogue among different cultures but which can also take sides when this is deemed necessary.
Such an approach is aware that international politics is heavily influenced by geopolitical factors, such as energy and spheres of influence, but it does not resort to cynicism devoid of concepts such as solidarity and justice.
Adopting an active neutral approach should not mean that Malta automatically joins military coalitions for the sake of it. Neither should it adopt the neocon assumption that the West is superior to the rest of the world and should, therefore, police it into conforming to specific political and cultural constructs.
Instead, it would perhaps be more productive to recognise the plurality of blocs around the world and to foster dialogue among them. But what if dialogue is impossible and injustices or atrocities are taking place?
As an EU member State, Malta will eventually have to discuss whether it will support calls for a stronger and more coherent EU foreign policy. As things stand, Europe has influential ‘soft’ power, for example, in terms of economic power but often relies on the US and Nato when ‘hard’ military power is required.
The current turmoil to the east and south of Europe is fostering debates across the European political spectrum as to whether further integration in foreign policy will give the EU greater clout around the world. Such clout is important for other issues across the policy spectrum, including trade agreements, migration, energy and climate change.
As regards the latter, the EU was a very weak actor in the Copenhagen global summit some years ago. One hopes this approach changes in the upcoming Paris global summit on climate change later on this year.
Small islands like Malta, which are particularly vulnerable to climate change, have even more reason to speak up. But, on the other hand, Malta should confirm its commitment to a common European energy policy to add political legitimacy to its concerns. In this regard, I wonder how Malta’s current energy policy, which includes dependence on new oligarchs, will influence Malta’s role within an EU context.