Dr Joseph Muscat has been Prime Minister of Malta, a Mediterranean island between Sicily and Libya and Tunisia, since March 2013. Malta joined the European Union in 2004.
“The problem of migration has struck at the very heart of Europe.”
What is the situation with the migrants?
In some years’ time we will realise that we are facing a phenomenon of historic proportions. This is not something temporary or that will disappear. This is truly a momentous moment in history. We European leaders are approaching things in a short term and crisis scenario. We are trying to come up with solutions that aren’t solutions at the end of the day, but addressing the immediacy of the crisis. What is of paramount importance is to create a context, to create the institutions, to create the tools for a much more wide-ranging engagement with this phenomenon; to actually try to create a system and manage the system.
What is going to happen to all these people? Are they going to stay or go back?
I don’t think we can just look at this issue as that we have camps in North Africa and so the issue will be solved, or we are sending people back and so the issue will be solved, or we will accept half a million people and the issue will be solved. It’s much more complicated than that, and has to be seen in a wider context.
What was your own most recent forum for speaking about this?
I made a speech on the 450th anniversary of the Great Siege of Malta for the Order of St John. I drew parallels with what happened after the Second World War, and at the end of the day we need a Bretton Woods on migration. That is the way forward.
Do you think Europe will emerge as a completely different continent?
Describe Europe to me! I cannot come up with a uniform hegemonic description of what Europe is all about. I think that Europe today is completely different to the Europe of 100 years ago, and I think that 50 years from now it will be completely different from today. I don’t see this as a threat, but as part of the change that the continent has been used to for the past centuries.
What is Malta’s role in that change?
As the smallest member state, we are trying to get our priorities right. First, we are saving lives at sea. We are the only country in Europe devoting 100% of our limited military assets to search-and-rescue and life-saving. Second, we are saying we need a system for legal migration, to allow people to come to Europe legally, but at the same time saying that we cannot accept everyone. By leaving the situation as it is today we are allowing criminals to run the show, and we are not in control. Third, we are advocating a more long-term perspective.
Many Mediterranean islands are receiving refugees. What is the situation in Malta?
Over the past years we have received literally thousands of people. Over the past two years we haven’t had so many arrivals, because most people go to Italy. We work in unison with our Italian colleagues, to make sure we are giving assistance and working as a team. We are both doing our part.
Did you meet Prime Minister Renzi?
We are on the same wavelength. We are two prime ministers that, during the next European meetings when the subject will come up, won’t need to change our position, which is that of most countries and one of common sense.
What is the position of Mrs Merkel?
Germany, and France, have a historical mandate, almost an obligation, to take a leadership role, maybe a reluctant leadership role, in Europe. I disagree with those who say that Mrs Merkel has changed her position now. She was very vociferous when we first discussed a European refugee mechanism and she was totally in favour. So she changed her position then, and not now. This did not just happen because of recent events.
Does Europe understand that this issue is probably its most important priority?
What do we mean by Europe? The European commission I would say yes. The member states, well it depends. Most have realised all this, but there is a staunch and strong minority that continue to try to bury their heads in the sand. What happened recently has shown that this is not just a problem of the Mediterranean, it has struck at the heart of Europe. It is not only a European problem, it is a global problem, and it is only a matter of time before the minority accepts this. I am not advocating an open-door policy which means we accept everyone just like that. I am saying there need to be new rules, because the current rules don’t work.
What can be done about Syria and the terrorists in Libya and Tunisia?
I can’t give you a solution to world problems like that, but there are prominent members of the international community that have turned a blind eye to Libya. We are very close to Libya, and we know the situation there. The truth is that many members of the international community don’t care about Libya, and we are one of the few to keep it on the agenda. We are in danger of having a failed state on the doorstep of Europe and we are trying, with the United Nations, to get Libyan people from different factions around the table, and to have a government of national unity.
What is your position regarding ISIS ?
We have the same position as the international community. I don’t think we are in some clear and present danger. People look at us as a place of dialogue and peace.
What kind of country is Malta now?
Economically we have the highest GDP growth in Europe. We have the second lowest unemployment rate, and expanding investment horizons. When it comes to civil liberty and civil rights we are amongst the most progressive in Europe. We share our natural situation, as a place where people from both North and South meet and work together.
Malta is 98% catholic. Have you met Pope Francis?
Yes, I met the Holy Father last year. His two immediate predecessors both came to the island, and the invitation is always open to him.
How many people live on Malta?
Almost half a million. We are the smallest country in Europe.
What is it like to run such a small country?
I cannot compare it with running a larger country, of which I have no experience! It’s challenging. We don’t perceive ourselves in matters of size, we like to punch above our weight when showing people what we can do and delivering results. This is a very exciting job.
Are you still very close to the UK?
We have a great deal of influence from the United Kingdom. Now we have been independent for 51 years and we have grown out of that, but definitely both the English influence and the Mediterranean influence can be felt. The Italian influence comes mostly through the media, and the Arabic influence comes through our Semitic Maltese language, so even in our everyday language the influence is felt.
Who are your strongest allies and friends?
We are spoilt for choice. I cannot really tell you who our enemies are as we don’t have enemies. We base our attitudes in foreign relations on an open approach. We will host the leaders of the 28 member states in Europe, who will meet with their African Union counterparts at the Valletta Summit on Migration. This special European Union/African Union summit to discuss migration problems will be held on 11th and 12th November, and Malta was chosen as the location for this conference as a symbol of uniting the continents.
Are you very active at the UN?
Historically we have been very active. We don’t have delusions of grandeur. We know our size and our sphere of influence and we try to give our total contribution.
Do you feel that you are treated like any other state, like France or Italy?
I have never felt otherwise. In this world of ours, and especially in Europe, what really counts are ideas and not geographical size, and we have good ideas.
What was your position during the Greek crisis?
Very clear, that we have to help Greece, and aside from Germany we are the country with the highest exposure to Greek debt. We are the only country to vote twice in parliament unanimously in favour of Greece, but obviously Greece has to do its part, which it wasn’t doing. Once again we take a common sense approach.
Do you think the Greek situation is settled?
I don’t think there is a final solution. This solution has managed to buy more time and to get the situation more in hand.
Do the Maltese feel close to the Greeks?
There is a different mentality. Our colonial past makes us a bit different. Our work ethic, the way we approach business and work, is pretty much Anglo-Saxon. It’s not very Mediterranean. The concept of fair play is very Anglo-Saxon and is the mentality here.
Do you have all the advantages, the Mediterranean climate combined with an Anglo-Saxon mentality?
I joke with my friends that we have a Mediterranean lifestyle and an Anglo-Saxon work ethic and thank God it’s not the other way round!
What are your major concerns?
It is crucial that Europe gets back on track economically, to perform much better than it does today by making it easier to carry out business in Europe, to be less bureaucratic, to open up to the outside world and make it easier for global investors to invest in Europe. Once you create wealth then you can discuss the distribution of wealth. Right now the problem of Europe is that it’s not creating the wealth it needs to distribute.
Are the migrants just going to make yet another difficulty for Europe?
Europe needs more talent, it needs more workers, it needs more everything. That’s why I say this system must not be allowed to run by criminal gangs, but run by government in order to see what our requirements are, including economic growth. Then we would manage to integrate more people successfully.
Europe exists as a cultural notion with a common currency, but with no common army or taxes. Can it have a single voice?
Europe is not one, it is a union of 28 different voices. It is a choir and not a single singer. That’s fine. It’s what we are. It’s not a huge drawback, and I don’t think it should be like America.
Diversity weakens response to events such as the Ukraine invasion or opening Iran, or even Syria. Wouldn’t it be better to have one voice?
Yes, but that would be unnatural, something that the people of Europe would not be looking forward to and that would lead to even an even bigger democratic deficit than there is today. I don’t think there is an appetite to do away with the nation state. Look at the issues around Europe and the movements gathering steam. I don’t agree with them being very nationalistic, but going into the opposite direction of one Europe with one voice and not leaving the space for national identity leads us into the hands of extremists.
What is the future role of Europe?
Europe should not try to go down the path of becoming one country, because it is not one country and can never be one country. I think Europe should go down the path of living in diversity and trying to coordinate as much as possible. Having one country would be the antithesis of Europe. Europe is diversity, not singularity or hegemony.
You are lucky that one of your two official languages is English, the world Esperanto today, but many countries are confined by their languages and there are even movements towards secession by dialect. What about the problem of language?
We can’t have a monopoly on education. People can learn languages. A culture change takes time and the nationalistic mentality is changing because of freedom of movement in Europe. I think the rate of change we will see in the next century will be at the speed of lightning compared to what we have seen over the past 100 years.
Until recently we thought Asian countries were growing in comparison to a shrinking Europe. Was this perception false?
We cannot base economic analysis on the numbers of a couple of weeks or a couple of months. Over the past decade or so in Europe the rate of growth was significantly lower than in Asia. Europe can prosper when other parts of the world prosper too. It is a virtuous circle, not an either/or approach. What we really missed was connection with the economies of other continents, to make it easier for their success to be our success too.
Is Malta still in the Commonwealth?
We are, and we are hosting the Commonwealth Summit in November. Leaders of 53 countries are coming, and the Queen of course – her last visit here was six years ago.
Today there is the celebration that she is the longest reigning monarch. Did you send her a long message?
We will send her a letter, to congratulate her as the head of state of another country, but we follow what is happening.
What newspapers do you read here?
We have our own newspapers, and obviously the international papers.
September 9th, 2015.
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