German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British PM Theresa May on an informal Valletta walkabout with other EU Leaders.

 

It breezed in with a concert on 1st January 2017 and breezed out again on 30th June 2017 with another concert – and Malta’s six month term as President of the European Union Council has come to an end. Was it all a shambolic gesture, an iconic spoof that the smallest Member Country in the European Union should hold the Presidency of a Council that is dominated by Germany, France, Britain (despite its BREXIT intentions), Italy and the other European giants – in fact all giants compared to Malta?

 

Then French President Francois Hollande views the bedroom where Napoleon Bonaparte slept for one night while briefly in Malta.

Well, what follows will determine what has been achieved or not achieved over the last six months and although all this political stuff may appear to be as dry as a bone, not everybody’s cup of tea and just boring political stuff, it is in fact stuff of significance in a number of sectors and during which a number of significant developments took place.

 

An Informal EU Summit but a formal official picture of EU Leaders. After the picture – a Valletta walkabout.

The 1st of January dawned to a background of turmoil within the EU. The United Kingdom’s referendum had given a mandate to the British Government to withdraw from the European Union, delivering a body-blow that sent the EU reeling and sprouted many questions as to whether the European organisation had become too much Brussels-based and not enough user-friendly to its citizens.

 

Ominously, General Elections were to be held in the first six months in The Netherlands, France and Germany. Would their electorates follow Britain’s lead? Right wing organisations, mainly vociferously against the EU, took the initiative to launch intensive campaigns for their countries to take Britain’s line.

 

In the eventuality, two further unexpected snap General Elections took place, one in Britain and the other in Malta itself – later raising questions as to whether a country holding the Council Presidency should additionally hold a General Election at such a crucial time.

 

The best of buddies, Maltese PM Joseph Muscat with EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

All these political rumblings were further over-shadowed by two other ominous sectors, that of transforming the EU to be less Brussels-based and more consumer friendly, but above all by the various splits on an approach for effective measures dealing with immigrant invasions and holding multi-features as to how such invasions may be stemmed, as to the treatment of hundreds of thousands of immigrants who had already reached Europe and a burden-sharing system to disperse these many thousands throughout all the Member Countries.

 

Outgoing Foreign Affairs Minister Dr George Vella with EU Commissioner for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini.

Interspersed among all these, Summit Meetings between EU Leaders were held in Malta as well as Brussels with the Maltese PM, his Ministers and top officials travelling throughout Europe to attend meetings as well as hosting meetings in Malta, despite an unexpected over-and-above month of hectic electioneering.

 

A good working bond between EU Council President Donald Tusk and Malta PM Joseph Muscat.

It became clear that Malta’s Presidency had come at a time of maximum turbulence and certainly no shambolic showcase and ended on a note of maximum triumph for Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and his hard-working team not only for their efficient handling of the Presidency but also by simultaneously winning his call for a snap election with an increased majority and the humiliation of the Opposition.

 

Malta’s student-designed logo for EU Council Presidency stint.

There were some lighter moments too which will remain memorable to many. On one early morning German Chancellor and her staff trooped into a wayside kiosk and ordered breakfast, leaving the kiosk staff stunned. An informal walkabout by EU Leaders in Valletta left pedestrians gasping that such distinguished persons should freely mingle with the public.

 

Outgoing Deputy Prime Minister Louis Grech with his young and highly efficient and able assistant Dr Ian Borg, now a Minister in the new Cabinet.

An outburst of controversy took Malta by storm. One morning PM Joseph Muscat, accompanied by his wife Michelle took some Leaders to a well-known Rabat cafe’ for a traditional Maltese pastizzi and coffee binge. Opposition spokesperson Dr Anne Fenech posted a criticism on Facebook slating this as being “common” and “undignified”, including having them drink coffee from a common glass.

 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel meets the kiosk staff that served her a surprise breakfast one morning when she unexpectedly walked in with her staff.

The reaction was outstanding with stormy outbursts defending Malta’s most favoured snack and the Rabat cafe’ which is a meeting point for almost all of Malta and Dr Fenech literally had to eat her words as she popped into the same cafe’ next day to show no hard feelings and that she meant no malice…..and to eat pastizzi and drink coffee from a glass!

 

PM Muscat and wife Michelle (centre) entertain some EU Leaders to traditional Maltese pastizzi, pea or rikotta filling in short pastry.

Summing up the six-month panorama, the influential EU journal “Politico” summed up Malta’s Presidency as “a tough act to follow” and carried a stream of positive comments by Europe’s top EU officials including the President of the EU Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and the President of the EU Council Donald Tusk. At one stage, Juncker was so impressed he was motivated to quip “I love Joseph Muscat!”

 

Controversy. An Opposition spokesperson criticised the PM for the pastizzi jaunt which she classed as common – followed by an outburst of Maltese protests.

Malta’s outgoing Foreign Minister Dr George Vella was also highly praised for all his behind-the-scenes work. He did not contest the snap election having now retired after reaching the ripe old age of 75 and over the last two years suffering a medical condition, as well as the outgoing Deputy Prime Minister Louis Grech who retired for very much the same reasons.

 

Getting down to the serious business.

The ultimate result is that during the six months a record number of 20 EU Laws in the so-called Coreper I Policy grouping were signed off mainly including economic measures, making the EU more consumer-friendly and including the removal of mobile ‘phone roaming charges that established that service providers be obliged to charge calls from other EU countries when a person travels overseas on the same charge as that of having made a local call in their country of origin. Agricultural and fisheries laws were also achieved and earned great praise for Malta as it is not classed as being a major player in either sector yet strongly insisted on their legislation.

 

All aboard the Jolly Boat, crossing the magnificent Grand Harbour with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and outgoing French President Francois Hollande.

Unfortunately, immigration still remains a highly divisive issue with some countries refusing to accept their ratio of immigrants and also holding off from their financial commitment for measures to be taken to curb immigrant invasions. The whole BREXIT process still promises to be full of turbulence.

 

Illegal Immigration – remains a field of controversy.

At the end of it all, the European Union appears to be in a stronger position than before. The elections in The Netherlands, Germany and France proved to be a snub for the extreme Right Wing factions and Brussels now breathes more easily.

 

The final touch took place on 28th June when Malta reached a political agreement with the EU Parliament on an EU Regulation Order for the establishment of an EU Agency for Asylum which will be based in Valletta enabling it to support other EU Member States to facilitate the functions of the Common European Asylum System. This is a mandate to ensure convergence in the assessment of applications for international protection throughout the EU by providing operational and technical assistance.

 

The opening in January was launched by a grand concert led by Malta’s internationally-famous tenor Joseph Calleja and ended in another musical concert by The Tenors, three Canadians one of whom is of Maltese origin.

 

An unexpected highlight took place during the holding of a Malta Summit for all EU Leaders when as a group they abandoned officialdom and took a walkabout in Valletta guided by Prime Minister Muscat who pointed out all the city’s historical aspects. Later, Muscat commented that this walk proved more substantial than the official discussions because there were more frank and open comments and more verbal agreements were achieved.

 

The next big step to look forward to? In 2018 Malta’s capital city Valletta will be Europe’s Capital of Culture and much hectic preparations are in hand, an event eagerly anticipated.

 

Meanwhile, the Presidency baton has now been handed to Estonia who will preside the EU Council until the end of this year before the baton changes hands again, as it will do every six months.

 

ALBERT FENECH

 

 

About Albert Fenech

Born in 1946, Albert Fenech’s family took up UK residence in 1954 where he spent his boyhood and youth before temporarily returning to Malta between 1957 and 1959 and then coming back to Malta permanently in 1965. He spent eight years as a full-time journalist with “The Times of Malta” before taking up a career in HR Management but still retained his roots by actively pursuing freelance journalism and broadcasting for various media outlets covering social issues, current affairs, sports and travel.