Interview | Sunday, 24 January 2010

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Leaving it in neutral

You cannot be neutral ‘between the fire and firefighters’, Foreign Minister Tonio Borg insists when arguing the need for a new Constitutional definition of neutrality. But elsewhere, the deputy PM favours maintaining the status quo

“The Nationalist Party in government would surely like to see the Constitutionally-entrenched neutrality clause updated, and made to reflect the modern times we live in. However, we are still waiting for the Opposition to come forward with some kind of proposed text.”
Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Tonio Borg indicates that government is in “no rush” to update the neutrality clause, but insists that it must be clear to all that “government is definitely not prepared to accept any wording that would continue to tighten or add any further obligations to Malta’s neutrality status.”
Borg concedes that there has been some movement from the Opposition ranks with regard to the possibility of initiating a debate on updating the neutrality clause that has been in effect since 1987, and that the current administration has “absolutely no issue with keeping the status-quo on not having Malta join any military alliance and hosting foreign military bases.”
Speaking from his office, which once served as Napoleon’s bedroom inside Palazzo Parisio in Valletta, Malta’s chief diplomat says that although the official indications from the PL are “positive” for an eventual debate on the issue, “things still remain very vague, often indicating that the PL has an internal struggle between the so-called ‘new Labour’ and the old guard, who seem to be resisting this kind of opening.”
Still, Tonio Borg insists that while government is willing to discuss modernising the neutrality clause, “it is now up to the Opposition to come up with some kind of text for discussion.”
Borg defined the existing clause as the “significant delicate balance” that had been struck in 1987 between a then Socialist-led government and the PN in Opposition.
Through this agreement, the PN accepted Malta declaring itself as a neutral state, while the Socialist government accepted the principle of guaranteeing a majority of parliamentary seats to a party gaining an absolute majority of electoral votes.
So there is no debate on Malta joining any military alliance or hosting any foreign military bases; but what would happen in the event of a hypothetical act of military aggression towards Malta or neighbouring Sicily, Lampedusa or mainland Italy?
Borg explains that this government will not enter any military treaty with any other government, but would voluntarily opt for military intervention to protect its own interests, should the need arise.
“I think it would be obvious that Malta would possibly act militarily to assist a neighbour in the event of aggression if this is in our interest, but this would not constitute a breach of its Constitution but rather a strengthening of its sovereign status,” Borg said, while adding that the same would probably be expected from neighbouring Italy should Malta ever have to succumb to a foreign aggression.
He qualified this by stating that: “even if we do not participate in military alliances, one cannot exclude military operations in exceptional circumstances in self-defence, or where our national interest requires…”
Giving a purely hypothetical example, Borg pictured a situation where a neighbouring country is occupied by a group which is inimical to Malta’s interest. It remains within Malta’s discretion whether to intervene or not; this does not go against neutrality. On the other hand if we enter a military alliance beforehand in some sort of defence agreement, that would go against our neutrality.
While repeating his conviction that the current administration will not sign any military treaty, he threw in the question as to what would the PL’s position be, given that in 1983, a Labout government “found no problem to secure a secret military treaty with North Korea, at the time when the Cold War was at its height.”
He asked: “If such a treaty was signed at a time when Malta had already deposited the instruments determining Malta’s neutrality at the United Nations, what problem could there be in agreeing to the flexibility of our neutrality status? This government is all for the neutrality status, but we must be flexible and adapt to today’s reality,” he stressed, while adding that there is general agreement that a change must be made to the anachronistic reference to Malta’s neutrality in the context of “the two superpowers”: USA and the Soviet Union.
On this point, Borg stressed that in 1987, Eddie Fenech Adami – then Leader of the Opposition – had warned the government that the phrasing was unacceptable, as it would keep Malta hostage to any changes to the World Order. Two decades later, Borg points out how “he was proved right!”
So as the debate on neutrality suddenly resurfaced when US Ambassador Douglas Kmiec reiterated President Obama’s call to the Western world to assist in the stabilisation of Afghanistan, Borg says: “Ambassador Kmiec was expressing an opinion and was asking for assistance to the Western world in creating stability in Afghanistan.”
Borg says he prefers to use Winston Churchill’s definition of alignment when he says “you can never be neutral between the fire and the fire-fighters…”
“I say this because I was asked to elaborate on my position as Foreign Minister by PL MP George Vella, who said that if I give assistance to Afghanistan, I would not be neutral to the conflict.
“But the conflict here is against the Taliban oppression of the Afghani people, and to be frank I’d rather be considered to be part of the Western world rather than a Taliban…” he stressed.
Borg explained that Malta can never be expected to send troops into Afghanistan. “We don’t have the capability or the resources to do so, but apart from sending cash grants intended for the reconstruction and stabilisation of the country, Malta is offering to train the Afghani civil service.”
Here, Borg rejected the assumption made by some that Maltese civil servants will train their Afghani counterparts in Kabul.
“I want the Afghans be sent to Malta and the training be given here,” he said, adding that it was never his intention to send civil servants to Afghanistan.
Speaking about the role of the Armed Forces, Borg said that the AFM and the Police have and still are participating in enforcement, peace-keeping or humanitarian missions overseas.
Missions were successful in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in Kosovo, while we have officers still serving in Georgia and another officer inside the Control and Response Centre against piracy off the coast of Somalia.
Borg didn’t exclude the possibility, considering the acts of piracy off Somalia, of having Maltese naval officers participate in the patrols off the coast of Somalia, aboard foreign military ships, as this would obviously be in the national interest, given that Malta is one of the largest shipping registers in the world.
The foreign minister stressed that there is a general interest by Maltese soldiers to participate in foreign missions, adding that the AFM’s C-Company is composed of professional soldiers who cannot wait for such an opportunity.
“Such participation is voluntary within the AFM, and interest is extremely high,” Tonio Borg said.
He speaks about Malta’s participation in Partnership for Peace (PfP) within the NATO framework of cooperation.
“PfP stops short of NATO membership. We joined PfP because it gave us access to information we couldn’t obtain before, and if neutral Switzerland is in PfP along with Russia, who will definitely not join NATO, as well as its known satellites Kazakhstan, Belarus, who are we to say that we joined PfP to eventually join NATO?” Tonio Borg asks, while insisting that Malta has no intention to join the transatlantic alliance.
He also criticised the Opposition`s view that joining Pfp goes against our neutrality, as stated by Charles Mangion, acting leader of the Opposition in March 2008.
Neutrality issues aside, we speak about Malta’s relations with Libya, given that it was announced this week that Muammar Gaddafi is expected to visit Malta next March.
According to Borg, the Maltese government is keen to welcome the Libyan leader, and a lot of groundwork has been done by Foreign Minister Mousa Kousa who led a delegation for talks this week.
“We have a lot of work to do with Libya,” Borg said, while explaining that the recent talks, held in Valletta between the two sides, paved the way for a possible wide-ranging agreement.
He explained that the Maltese government would like to conclude – before Gaddafi’s visit – an umbrella agreement, similar to the one reached between Italy’s Berlusconi and Gaddafi covering a number of issues, including illegal immigration.
Asked if an agreement in this sense would see Malta repatriating migrants to Tripoli – just as Italy has arranged – Malta’s foreign minister replied, “not really.”
He explained that so far Italy has repatriated 500 migrants, but the agreement they reached with Libya was a result of the fact that Prime Minister Berlusconi has pledged large sums of money in compensation for Italy’s colonisation of the North African country.
Secondly, Malta is convinced that Libya has stepped up its action in policing the departure harbours of Zliten and Zuwara, dealing quite a blow to organised crime there, not to mention the joint patrols with Italy inside Libyan territorial waters that have hindered the departures of migrant boats.
“What we are working on is to obtain an agreement for the repatriation of those migrants who get their refugee or asylum status application rejected.”
While Borg reiterated his support for Italy’s forced repatriation policy, notwithstanding the harsh criticism levelled at Rome by human rights groups and the Vatican for bypassing its obligation of guaranteeing access to application for asylum seekers, he stressed that this support is in the Maltese “national interest.”
With regard to the efforts being made to repatriate migrants to Libya when their applications are rejected, Borg spells out further complications because Libya “rightly requests the EU to come forward and assist it returning the migrants to their countries of origin.”
As Minister Mousa Kousa put it to the Maltese media this week, out of a population of 6.5 million, Libya has 2 million migrants, and this implies a huge problem.
“Libya definitely cannot do it alone,” Tonio Borg said, while adding that further effort by the EU is needed to assist Libya in addressing the migration problem.
On the EU-sponsored Frontex patrols, Tonio Borg said that these should resume in April, however there still is a lot to do in getting a further commitment from member states.
“We would like to see a serious commitment from all EU states, and not just from Germany, Italy and France, to supply air support, and just the Maltese navy to patrol the seas,” he said.
While insisting that the Maltese government will never accept Frontex patrols to be conducted inside Malta’s search and rescue zone, it is now up to the EU to stress the importance of participation among all member states.
Borg stressed that although there are no specific rules of engagement within the South Mediterranean Frontex patrols, the general public might not understand that the mission is complicated in itself, given the fact that there is no agreement between the EU and Libya so far.
While Malta will continue struggling to protect its borders from the influx of illegal migrants, its mission at sea will remain exclusively a search and rescue under extreme conditions, and definitely not a circumstance where every boat intercepted will be directed to Valletta.
Borg explained that Malta will continue to respect the safe passage of migrant boats, while with Frontex it will continue to stress the importance that those rescued will be taken to the nearest safest port.
Migrants aside, I speak to Tonio Borg on the unrest within the PN parliamentary backbench, and stresses that “all is fine...”
Fine, I ask?
“Yes it’s all fine, its only natural to have situations where you get disagreements on issues; our parliamentary group is full of team spirit but it is not subject to regimentalised thinking,” he says.
I question Borg about his statement and stress that it is more than apparent that Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi seems to be adopting a short-sighted policy of appeasing his disgruntled back-benchers…
But while he rejects the word “disgruntled,” Borg later accepts the notion that some back-benchers would like to be more involved in policy-making; and “government is doing whatever possible to meet such aspirations.”
He says that what the people and the media fail to observe is that this administration’s backbench is much bigger than ever, given that the Cabinet is much smaller.
Mentioning MP Franco Debono by name, Borg stressed that “if we have a member who is correct to point out certain shortcomings, it has nothing to do with appeasing but doing the right thing.”
He refers to the recent parliamentary committees that have been set up and said that the respective IVF policy and legal update committees will serve a good cause, and will alleviate a lot of parliamentary work.
He announced that the PL has nominated MP Michael Farrugia to the IVF committee, while MP Josè Herrera will sit on the legal update committee headed by MP Franco Debono.
Before I depart from Tonio Borg’s office to leave him to another series of back-to-back meetings, I grasp the opportunity to ask him for an opinion about the ongoing censorship controversy and the imminent arraignment of ‘Realta’ editor Mark Camilleri.
“The police have done their duty according to law,” Tonio Borg replied, while adding also that one must “be careful not to be anachronistic.”
But questioned on what he thinks about the calls for the removal of censorship, Tonio Borg stressed that he would like to see a “modernisation” of the definition of censorship, but “surely not removing censorship in its totality.”
Here I refer him to Education Minister Dolores Cristina’s declared position that she is against censorship, but Borg replies that Cristina had recently made a declaration in Cabinet to say that she was not correctly quoted by the media.
“Dolores Cristina and all the Cabinet agree that there should be a level of censorship to guarantee that nobody would be taken for a ride and given the absolute freedom to write obscenely where it is not required.”
Borg insisted that today, “one can access pornography but one cannot allow it to be found everywhere, so the concealment from the general public consumption must exist to protect values…” he said.
Finally, Tonio Borg said that it is still his wish to see the right to life even of the unborn entrenched in the Constitution.
“Contrary to the media’s perception that this is my crusade, I say that it’s the whole Cabinet’s intention to find a two thirds majority to entrench abortion in the Constitution on the same lines as the Irish did…”

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